Just a week after Jeffrey D. Zients assumed his first management job 18 years ago, he slashed the size of his staff from six to two and replaced one of the remaining individuals. The ambitious 25-year-old was on a fast track at a Washington consulting firm, and he knew he needed the right people in place as quickly as possible.
But when he took over as President Obama’s first-ever government performance officer a year ago, there was no way Zients could replicate that quick start. That’s because it takes on average five months to hire a worker under the convoluted federal hiring process
"I knew there was no way we would be able to meet the president's challenge to make government service cool again and at the same time have such a broken hiring process that, for the most part, did not have senior leaders spending the appropriate amount of time on people," recalled Zients, a trim 43-year-old who is graying around the temples.
What he did next tells a lot about how Zients attacks a problem: He quickly enlisted Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan to launch a pilot project at his agency to try to dramatically reduce the time it takes to bring a new worker on board. First, department officials mapped the convoluted hiring process, identified logjams and cut out redundancies, which reduced the number of steps from 40 to only 14. Then, they trained hiring managers on techniques for getting involved much earlier and identifying job candidates with the right skills. Finally, they tracked each step in the process to see how close managers were to hitting the time allotted for each stage.
Six months later, the experiment succeeded in reducing the hiring process from an average of 139 days to a mere 77. When Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry and Zients rolled out hiring reform for the entire government in May, they were able to point to this success as evidence that the changes would work.
"Organizations often spend too much time thinking about and planning and preparing for change management," Zients said during a recent interview with The Fiscal Times, over mugs of hot tea from his wife's native South Africa. "The best way to change is to begin to change, and then to celebrate those early wins. That builds a natural momentum."
Zients, a Duke University graduate with years of experience as a management problem solver, wasn’t the first person brought in from the private sector to try to streamline the federal bureaucracy and wring budget savings from its operations. Just about every administration in the last half century has tried it, including President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural pledge to “curb the size and influence of the federal establishment” and the Clinton administration’s efforts to “reinvent government.” Zients says his mandate is to make government open, efficient and “cool again,” by stimulating lasting change in the multitude of federal agencies, with the potential to save hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decade.
“Too often in Washington, we spend more time developing, debating and deciding which policies to pursue than we do actually figuring out how to implement them,” White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, who recruited Zients, said in a speech last week. “But in reality, execution matters – and matters a lot.”
Government experts say the problem has always been measuring performance in a meaningful wayand acting on the results rather than simply establishing a complicated performance measurement system that spits out a score but doesn't result in change. It is also extremely difficult to marry the bottom-line focus of a relatively small handful of budget officers with the program goals and institutional knowledge of the over 2 million employees in the federal government.
Another big challenge for Zients and OMB will be finding ways to modernize and consolidate the government’s computer system, with its 1,100 data centers located throughout the country. Orszag last week said that the government’s “IT gap” compared to private industry, is the biggest reason for its sluggish productivity growth. He added that closing the gap is “perhaps the single most important step we can take in creating a more efficient and responsive government.”
Zients' approach, colleagues and analysts say, combines his significant people skills with a strategic, analytical mind and the intensity of his private-sector career. He's liable to roll out promising initiatives as soon as they've gained enough traction to move forward. "He's both hard charging but nice and that's an unusual combination anywhere," said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a good-government research and advocacy group. "He recognizes that if he doesn't get buy-in in the agencies, he can't institutionalize the changes he's trying to make."
After being confirmed last June 19, Zients embarked on a 100-day "listening tour," meeting with federal career managers, good government groups, academics, front-line employees and the deputy secretaries of the major departments, who make up the President's Management Council.
The council—which Zients chairs as deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget—soon became a key vehicle for building support within agencies and spreading best practices within the government. Zients invited all of the council members and their significant others to his house for dinner in the first few months of his tenure and has encouraged personal connections beyond the council's regular meetings. The result: Council members return each others' calls the same day and consider each other allies, said Scott Gould, deputy secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"He [Zients] understands that as a team we're going to move at the speed of trust," Gould said. "He's the individual who's brought the members of the President's Management Council more closely together."
The VA was interested in pooling purchasing power with other federal agencies through the Obama administration's strategic sourcing initiative, which aimed to save $40 billion a year via a more efficient acquisitions process. Zients recruited a number of key agencies until he felt enough had signed on.
"Jeff said, 'Okay, I've reached a critical mass. Let's demonstrate the value and go back for a second round,'" Gould said. "He knows when to say, 'Let's move forward, we don't need to have perfect enrollment.'"
Zients, the married father of four young children, brings a sense of fun and high energy to his work that motivates his colleagues and staff, said Frank Williams, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm the Advisory Board Company, where Zients previously worked, .
"Jeff is not the sort of person who bulldozes over other people," Williams said. "More than almost anyone I've worked with from 7 in the morning to however late at night he's always on and pushing and very smart and really trying to get the right answer. That energy is contagious; it makes the people around him want to work hard."
The stakes are high, according to Zients, who left the private sector because of his admiration for Obama and concern that the country was at a pivotal time in its history, with a $1.4 trillion deficit.
"We have rising deficits and debts and we have a period of historic low in terms of trust in government," he said. "We need to make sure every taxpayer dollar counts and that our services perform at the highest level."
While this is Zients' first government job, he grew up in the Washington, D.C. area in close contact with public servants. As a management consultant and then chairman of the Advisory Board and Corporate Executive Board, a sister company, he managed change and performance for a living—and left those companies as a multimillionaire, to start his own investment firm.
"Somebody who had never served in government before was willing to take on the almost-impossible task of bringing performance metrics to the federal government," said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who suggested Zients to the Obama administration after management consultantNancy Killefer had to withdraw from consideration because of a personal tax issue.
Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, said that "What I find remarkable and refreshing in government is his willingness to be very clear about what are the benchmarks he want to achieve."
David Bradley, founder of the Advisory Board Company and Corporate Executive Board, recalled the rollercoaster ride as the companies grew from 100 to 2,000 employees during Zients' tenure. Even when morale was low, Zients kept his focus on results and problem solving. "He's wired for loyalty," Bradley said. "If the president was down to Rahm Emanuel and one more colleague, it would be Jeff Zients."