Slogan-Free Zone

The government's chief performance officer bets on substance over style.

Jeffrey Zients, the Obama administration's chief performance officer, had a coming-out party of sorts in early October. After exactly 100 days in office, he presented a summary of what he had learned on an extended listening tour of federal agencies.

Government Executive was happy to host the event at our Excellence in Government conference in Washington. We have firsthand experience with Zients' management style, because he was one of the leaders of the group that purchased the magazine and our sister publication, National Journal, from the Times Mirror Co. in 1997. In his presentation at the conference, Zients made a substantive case for sustained improvements in the performance of federal programs. He gently observed that the two previous administrations' reform efforts hadn't fully delivered on expectations, noting they were on opposite ends of a continuum ranging from Command and Control (Bush) to Let 1,000 Flowers Bloom (Clinton/Gore).

The Obama administration, he said, would seek to find the middle ground between these two styles with a "sustainable implementation approach" to building "foundational capabilities" that he characterized as "focused collaboration."

At this point, it's probably clear that Zients wasn't unveiling an effort with a catchy slogan, like Reinventing Government, or President's Management Agenda. Rather, he focused on four key barriers to improving federal performance that he'd encountered:

  • A lack of focus on management by senior political leaders.
  • Failed efforts at upgrading the government's information technology infrastructure.
  • An overly cumbersome contracting process.
  • An equally burdensome federal hiring process.

At that point, there were a lot of heads nodding in agreement. But the burning question is what specifically the administration will do to attack these problems. Zients said the key is engagement-inviting people at all levels of organizations to help identify effective solutions. He pointed to a couple of agencies-the Veterans Benefits Administration and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services-where that process already is under way. How, then, to get other agencies to buy in? Say what you will about sloganeering, but when it comes to garnering attention and winning support for your management approach, there's a certain value to slapping a high-profile label on it. (Government Executive's longtime leader, Timothy B. Clark, suggests one straight out of Zients' talking points: CORE for "Culture of REsults.")

So far, Zients and his boss in the White House have resisted such an approach. So we might be in for a test of whether substance alone sells.

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