Government management is a fit for businessman, observers say

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.

The Outsider

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."

In the January issue of Government Executive, Elizabeth Newell examines Zients' prospects at change.

Click here to read the full story

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.