Performance chief promises to help managers overcome challenges

Jennifer Trezza/GovExec.com
Jeffrey Zients understands your pain and thinks he can help.

Exactly 100 days since being confirmed, the government's chief performance officer told federal managers at Government Executive's Excellence in Government conference on Monday that his "listening tour" has helped him identify the top barriers to getting things done in government: the policy focus of senior leaders, failed information technology, and cumbersome contracting and hiring processes.

Political leaders' focus tends to migrate toward policy, rather than management and implementation, Zients said, and there also is significant turnover at that level roughly every 18 months. While managers could attempt to implement reforms and execute programs themselves, they are stymied by outdated technology systems, a hiring process that takes an average of 150 days and acquisitions that fail to take advantage of the government's status as the world's largest purchaser, according to Zients.

He identified IT as causing the biggest gap he has seen between the private and public sectors. "IT has been responsible for most of the productivity gains and quality improvements in the private sector over the last decade," Zients said. "The government has missed most of these gains."

To close the divide, government must beef up its project management capabilities, work with Congress and other stakeholders to speed up processes, and take advantage of new cheaper, faster technologies, he said.

While agencies have made strides in pooling purchases and saving money on large-scale commodity acquisitions, the government still is missing out on potential savings, according to Zients. For more complex, noncommercial acquisitions, agencies need better coordination and a significant investment in the acquisition workforce, he said.

"I do appreciate that contracting is different in the public sector [and] that we do need to consider factors that go beyond price and deliverables," Zients said. "That said, the contracting infrastructure we operate under today was built for a different era. We need to catch up, and we will."

The hiring process was a significant target for criticism, with Zients saying that his private sector experience shows talented candidates do not "loiter for five months" waiting for a job; they find another one.

Zients said one of the challenges to implementing these reforms will be overcoming a longstanding tension between focus and participation. The focus -- or command-and-control approach -- with its spotlight on tracking and grading, was a hallmark of the Bush administration's management agenda, he said. The participation -- or "a thousand flowers bloom" -- approach allows for broader engagement but tends to have less direction, Zients said. He noted that was one of the problems with Vice President Al Gore's management initiatives during the Clinton administration.

Zients said he will challenge federal managers to engage in a focused collaboration based on the principles of prioritization, transparency, engagement and rapid results. OMB kicked off prioritization efforts months ago by asking agencies to submit their high-priority, short-term performance goals. Zients also made an argument for engagement and transparency.

In addition to increasing accountability on the part of the government and trust on the part of the public, transparency and engagement create opportunities for innovation, Zients said. With the necessary information and encouragement, outside stakeholders and average citizens can participate in solving some of government's most challenging problems, he said.

Agencies already are proving they can buck stereotypes and deliver rapid results, Zients said. He credited U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with meeting a 90-day mandate to launch a redesigned Web site where applicants can track their immigration status.

While challenging agencies to make major changes, Zients committed to transformation within his own agency to facilitate these reforms.

"We're going to move from OMB sets priorities to the agency sets priorities; from oversight to partnership; from shipping reams of guidance to two-way dialogue about how we achieve the desired outcome; from transparency not just for accountability, but for idea flow to find and share the best practices; from ad hoc engagement for stakeholders such as Congress, to regular communication," he said. "I'm positive we'll make mistakes, we'll slip into some old bad habits, but I commit to you that we will serve you differently than we have in the past."

Zients, who also holds the title of OMB deputy director for management, is working with the agency's new associate director for performance and personnel management, Shelley Metzenbaum, to develop a performance measurement program, but he said the crucial indicator of success will be stakeholder support. As a result, OMB will be working to build on the Bush administration's Program Assessment Ratings Tool through stakeholder engagement, rather than "throwing the baby out with the bath water."

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