After the Obama Presidency, Gina McCarthy, the former Administrator of the EPA, landed at Harvard as a Fellow of the Institute of Politics and ran a Tuesday afternoon study group, as IOP Fellows do. Since I have way too much time on my hands, an interest in the environment, and a great deal of respect for Ms McCarthy, I attended her study group. One day, she said something about her experience in the Obama administration that struck me as important, something I’d not heard before.
What excited my interest was that McCarthy said she had never seen the kind of cooperation between different government departments that she saw in the Obama administration. This cooperation was not only on the top levels of appointed positions like Secretary and Under-Secretary but went deep down throughout the bureaucracy. McCarthy has worked for 25 years in public administration in Conneticut and Massachusetts and the Federal government. That this level of cooperation (and the implied lack of turf wars) between departments was remarkable to her is most remarkable to me.
I asked her to think about what the reasons for such cooperation might be and to write about it as I believe this to be important. My own guess is that the election of Barack Obama gave people an opportunity to work together on a clear and beneficial common purpose. My readings on motivation have convinced me that what gives people satisfaction at work are a clear common purpose, a certain amount of autonomy, and a chance for mastery. It may be that the Obama adminstration consciously or unconsciously provided at least one of those three and, possibly, all of them.
Obama, in my reading, has had a reputation for conciliation and cooperation from his student days through his terms in the Illinois State Senate, the US Senate, and the Presidency. That “No Drama” Obama attitude may also have penetrated throughout his administration by osmosis or practice. President Biden has a similar reputation, especially in regards to bipartisanship or working with Republicans.
McCarthy was Obama’s second term EPA administrator and served from 2013 to 2017. This unusual level of inter-departmental cooperation was built and sustained over two terms, eight years, and probably well worth studying. What were the mechanisms that allowed this to happen and can they be replicated?
After the Trump administration whose hallmarks were chaos, petty cruelty as policy, and tactical incompetence to muddy their tracks and avoid responsibility, we might want to know how to generate increased inter-departmental cooperation now that the Trump presidency* is over. We’re probably gonna need all the help we can get and it seems to me that Biden, McCarthy, and the many veterans of the Obama era have the experience and the smarts to replicate that cooperation in depth that Gina McCarthy talked about on a Tuesday afternoon in a Kennedy School seminar room back in 2017.