As federal performance chief, entrepreneur Jeffrey Zients takes on his toughest project yet-improving government.
The way former colleagues describe him, Jeffrey Zients comes off as something of a data savant. Friends and associates paint the longtime Washington businessman as someone who relies heavily on data and has an intrinsic ability to make sense of it, a skill befitting his new role as federal chief performance officer and deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.
"He is particularly good at forensic financial analysis," says David Bradley, who founded The Advisory Board Co. and the Corporate Executive Board Co. Zients held senior executive positions, including chief executive officer and chairman, at both companies. "There could be hundreds of numbers spread before you in spreadsheets and financial documents, and Jeff would say, 'Only these four matter. Don't they tell the story?' "
Bradley, who now owns Atlantic Media Co., publisher of Government Executive, calls Zients "as lucid, linear and rigorous a thinker as I have seen." This talent for numbers will be critical as Zients and his team develop and execute a governmentwide management agenda covering information technology, financial management, procurement, performance and human resources.
For many federal insiders, the White House's decision to pick Zients, after initial nominee Nancy Killefer withdrew, was a surprise. Unlike Killefer, who made a career in government consulting and was assistant Treasury secretary for management during the Clinton administration, Zients was an outsider. "I had spent my 20 years in the other Washington," he says.
In 1992, four years out of college, Zients joined the Advisory Board, a consulting firm focused on business best practices and performance benchmarking. Bradley says he was a force to be reckoned with almost immediately upon arrival. "I've never seen a 26-year-old with so much preternatural self-confidence and so instantly on to the merits-to the merits of the people, of the concepts," Bradley says.
Zients climbed the ranks of the Advisory Board, becoming chief executive officer in 1998 and chairman in 2001. Bradley also tapped Zients to be chairman of the Corporate Executive Board, an Advisory Board spinoff.
When Zients was first approached about joining the administration, he was managing partner of Portfolio Logic LLC, a business and health care investment firm he founded in 2003. Zients says he was walking into a meeting when he got a call from a friend who said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., wanted to know whether he would be interested in the performance chief job.
"I am someone who is normally quite analytic and tend to think things through, but as soon as I got that call I was instantly excited about the possibility of serving, and serving in this capacity, and just honored to have received that call," Zients says.
According to Warner, it was almost happenstance that he was asked to weigh in on potential candidates. "I was talking with White House personnel on another subject, and because of my business background and state government performance, they asked me if I knew anyone who would be good. I had two names in mind, but [Zients] was by far the first choice." Warner says he had known Zients for years through Washington-Northern Virginia business circles.
The White House was looking for someone with the ability to get things done, Warner says, to view a problem through others' eyes but also set and execute an agenda. "He fit the bill," he says.
Advisory Board Chairman Frank J. Williams wasn't surprised Zients took the White House job. "The idea of getting involved where he could have a broader impact on the government and the country, I knew at some point that would appeal to him," Williams says. "I didn't know he would do it now, but when I heard he was, I was pretty excited for the government."
Warner says his only worry was the difficult adjustment Zients would face coming from the private sector to government. "I was concerned that to make the transition to this level of government-I remember it was a real shock to me-that he might get frustrated with the pace and hurdles of the federal government. But he seems to be taking to it."
Upon hearing that he was under consideration, Zients turned to friend and mentor Mickey Kantor, U.S. trade representative and then Commerce secretary under President Clinton. "The concerns Jeff had were concerns anyone as thoughtful as he is should have: What would the job entail, how is it to go from private sector into government, what kind of obstacles do you face, could he be successful in the job," Kantor says. Now a partner at the Chicago-based law firm Mayer Brown, Kantor says he assured Zients the job would be interesting and meaningful, and that he could more than succeed in the position.
In anticipation of his nomination hearing, Zients got a crash course on a job that has both tremendous breadth and intricate detail. "It was like being back in school in some ways," he says. "It was long hours of studying and meeting and asking questions and getting advice and counsel." He credits his team at OMB for helping him learn and think through the issues, as well as to understand the administration's positions on them.
"When I look back on it, going through that process, it was very valuable," Zients says. "It did give me a basic grounding in each of the areas I'm involved in."
According to Bradley, upon getting the nomination, Zients methodically read through the findings of landmark reports on federal management of the past 30 to 40 years, and found himself agreeing with most of them. "He's really on to this issue that getting to the right answer is less difficult than mobilizing the government to reach it," he says.
And that difficulty, Bradley expects, will be Zients' greatest challenge. "Jeff's gift is getting to the correct answer, but public policy doesn't always get to the correct answer," he says. "Learning to work from the analysis to the politically feasible is going to be an hour of maturation for him."
Zients says his two biggest surprises since joining government have been discovering the quality of the workforce and learning the extent to which information technology lags behind the private sector. "As I moved to this new sector, this Washington, this government, I didn't know what to expect, not having worked closely with federal managers and employees," Zients says. "It's been a very pleasant surprise how talented and how committed government workers are. I think they're every bit as talented as the private sector, and in many situations even more so."
During his time in the private sector, Zients says, many of the improvements he saw in productivity and in service and product quality came from technology. "There are pockets of technology excellence in government, but for the most part or in many situations, we've missed out on those service quality and product quality gains, because we haven't been able to implement large-scale IT projects or really reengineer processes."
In addition to the litany of management challenges on his agenda, Zients is facing a number of personal challenges.
He says he is reminded every day of the steep learning curve that comes with moving into government from the private sector. He is continually prioritizing the tremendous amount of work. "I need to make sure I'm constantly asking what is most important, what do we need to be focusing on, and what is less important and can be tackled down the road," he says.
"It's been a transition for me and my family," Zients says. "I worked hard in the private sector. I've doubled down on working hard here. Obviously, with four kids, I need to work with my family to make sure I strike the right balance, because I feel a real commitment to the administration, my colleagues here, to citizens and taxpayers to do the best possible job. And that requires long hours and hard work, so I need to make sure I do that right."
Kantor says the one piece of advice he gave Zients was to be upfront with his family about the responsibilities that would come with the new job: "I said, 'make sure you and your family understand how many hours you will work and how absent you will be and what kind of pressures you will face.' In that job, the pressures are enormous."
Zients' former colleagues say he is uniquely suited to handle the pace of his new job. Williams calls him "very high energy," bringing acceleration and excitement to whatever he works on.
The administration's management agenda contains two distinct sets of priorities on two separate time frames. Much of the focus has been on "high-priority performance goals," identified by agencies as being achievable within two years. But Zients says institutionalized challenges will require a slow turning of the ship. The difference between these challenges and the private sector's is that a breakthrough idea isn't necessary.
"Given the quality of the people [and] the fact that there are a lot of good practices across government, we don't need to invent something here," Zients says. "I don't think this is the stuff of needing a breakthrough strategy.
It's not the stuff of what's the next product in the pipeline that's going to catapult a technology company to the next level. This is the stuff of strong execution, strong management, real commitment and real focus."
Zients spends his days juggling the many hats he wears as deputy director for management and chief performance officer. He has testified on Capitol Hill 10 times since being nominated, and says open lines of communication with Congress are crucial to ensuring the administration builds a performance management system that agencies will use, particularly during the budget process.
He serves as the chairman or co-chairman on a litany of federal organizations, including the President's Management Council, whose members are deputy secretaries at major agencies; the Chief Acquisition Officer's Council; the Chief Financial Officers Council; the Chief Human Capital Officer's Council; and others.
He is regularly called on by top administration officials to address "issues of the moment," such as the Cash for Clunkers program or the backlog of veterans wanting to be re-imbursed for college tuition under the new GI bill.
He meets regularly with the senior team at OMB and works with other senior administration officials on governmentwide goals. For example, Zients meets with Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry several times a week "to talk through how we make government cool again, which is what the president has tasked us with."
They discuss shortening the hiring process, measuring and improving employee engagement, and other big-picture personnel matters, he says.
He works with federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra to address the technology gap. "We're looking at how do we make large-scale IT initiatives work, where can the government actually take advantage of light technologies, the cloud, and have shared technology across government."
Among all this juggling, Zients is trying to focus first on the administration's commitment to fixes that affect citizens most. He cites the redesign of the Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau Web site as an example. Within 90 days of making a commitment to enhance public access to immigration information and case status, the new site was launched.
"We're very interested in working on areas that citizens touch, that serve citizens directly," Zients says. "We're always looking for opportunities for us to apply some of our early efforts to citizen-facing services and how we might be able to help improve those."
But with success, Zients is not one to rest on his laurels. Bradley says one of his weaknesses is an inability to celebrate achievements. "There's no gene in his body that's capable of celebrating the moment," Bradley says. "He's always on to the next thing."
This lack of self-satisfaction could serve him well, because for as long as he is government's chief performance officer, Zients always will have more to do.
In appearances, testimony and interviews since taking office earlier this year, Jeffrey Zients has unveiled a set of key management priorities the Obama administration will focus on in an effort to boost government performance:
- Close the technology gap by beefing up project management, working with Congress and other stakeholders to speed processes, and taking advantage of new technologies.
- Employ strategic sourcing by pooling purchases to save money on large-scale commodity acquisitions, as well as improving coordination on complex, noncommercial acquisitions.
- Improve human capital management by reducing hiring time, "making government cool again," and focusing on employee wellness.
- Address high-priority performance goals by having agencies identify important short-term goals and dedicate the time, energy and money to fix them.
- Reform acquisition and save $40 billion a year by finding the right contractor-federal employee workforce balance, limiting high-risk contracts and strengthening the acquisition workforce.
- Create a more participatory government by increasing accountability and transparency on the part of government and allowing for more public engagement and opportunities for citizen-driven innovation.