Federal performance chief: It's about managing missions, metrics

Jeffrey Zients, who made a fortune advising companies on best business practices (working with National Journal and Government Executive owner David Bradley), became the federal government's first chief performance officer in 2009, helping to bring private-sector innovation to public-sector practice. The administration's agenda is now focused on repairing its relationship with the business community, saving money, and pushing economic development on the cheap. Zients, who has spent his life around Washington but had never served in government before, finds himself a necessary man. Edited excerpts of his interview with National Journal follow.

NJ: This administration has been criticized for its lack of business experience. You come from the private sector; do you think that's accurate?

ZIENTS: I chair the president's management council, the senior-most management group, made up of the deputy secretaries of the various agencies, and our agenda is very much the agenda of making government service more effective and efficient. There are several people around that table with significant business backgrounds and other types of management [experience]. We have a very strong group of deputy secretaries who really act as [chief operating officers] of their agencies.

NJ: What's the biggest difference between success in the private sector and in government?

ZIENTS: Companies have a handful of key metrics to drive their performance, but at the end of the day, every private company has one bottom line: profitability. We do not have that single bottom line. If you think about the government, we are trying to improve social conditions, we are protecting our national security, we are trying to contribute to a growing economy. So there are a bunch of different missions and metrics.

NJ: Does that make it harder to deploy private-sector experience?

ZIENTS: Success in any environ­ment is about functioning as a team and the quality of individuals that are leading your effort. That works well in the private sector, and it works well in the public sector. On any issue, there are individuals or companies-or, in our context, agencies-that are further along, that have wrestled with the issue longer or come up with better ideas. That philosophy of what's working and what's not working has served us well in accountable government.

NJ: You have a mandate to eliminate waste, but is that just a drop in the bucket of our larger fiscal challenge?

ZIENTS: Each year, the federal government has $125 billion in improper payments-to the wrong person or entity, at the wrong time, or in the wrong amount. Clearly, that $125 billion is real money that matters. It's not the solution to all of our problems; we need to move beyond just the focus on waste. At the same time, every dollar matters.

NJ: How do you stop those improper payments? ZIENTS: The Recovery Act actually piloted a very innovative, state-of-the-art fraud-protection tool from the private sector that we're now deploying across the federal government. It can spot, for example, a connection between one corporation and [another] corporation that has done something illegal and fraudulent. By spotting that before the dollars are committed, you avoid the fraud altogether.

NJ: You talk about improving the government's customer service. Why should public officials take that approach?

ZIENTS: Take Social Security -- you can now make an appointment online. That's a good customer-service practice. Those types of touches with government are very important to helping restore trust in government.

A lot of my historical interaction with government has been more at the city or local level. [I watched former Mayor Anthony] Williams and the changes he made to the city of D.C., my hometown, and [former Mayor Adrian] Fenty following through on those. The difference in getting driver's licenses and other services from the city, and how much that impacts one's quality of life-to go from at times not very good customer service to strong customer service in the District made a difference.

NJ: What's the most frustrating thing about your job?

ZIENTS: In any setting, it's really important to focus on a handful of priorities that drive results. That's challenging in the private sector. It's even more challenging here because of the 24-hour news cycle, competing priorities, things that happen that you could have never anticipated. It's not frustrating, but it's challenging to make sure that we have that handful of priorities that we're driving to get those early results.

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