Just a week after Jeffrey D. Zients assumed his first management job 18 years ago, he slashed the size of his staff from six to two and replaced one of the remaining individuals. The ambitious 25-year-old was on a fast track at a Washington consulting firm, and he knew he needed the right people in place as quickly as possible.
But when he took over as President Obama’s first-ever government performance officer a year ago, there was no way Zients could replicate that quick start. That’s because it takes on average five months to hire a worker under the convoluted federal hiring process
"I knew there was no way we would be able to meet the president's challenge to make government service cool again and at the same time have such a broken hiring process that, for the most part, did not have senior leaders spending the appropriate amount of time on people," recalled Zients, a trim 43-year-old who is graying around the temples.
What he did next tells a lot about how Zients attacks a problem: He quickly enlisted Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan to launch a pilot project at his agency to try to dramatically reduce the time it takes to bring a new worker on board. First, department officials mapped the convoluted hiring process, identified logjams and cut out redundancies, which reduced the number of steps from 40 to only 14. Then, they trained hiring managers on techniques for getting involved much earlier and identifying job candidates with the right skills. Finally, they tracked each step in the process to see how close managers were to hitting the time allotted for each stage.
Six months later, the experiment succeeded in reducing the hiring process from an average of 139 days to a mere 77. When Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry and Zients rolled out hiring reform for the entire government in May, they were able to point to this success as evidence that the changes would work.
"Organizations often spend too much time thinking about and planning and preparing for change management," Zients said during a recent interview with The Fiscal Times, over mugs of hot tea from his wife's native South Africa. "The best way to change is to begin to change, and then to celebrate those early wins. That builds a natural momentum."
Zients, a Duke University graduate with years of experience as a management problem solver, wasn’t the first person brought in from the private sector to try to streamline the federal bureaucracy and wring budget savings from its operations. Just about every administration in the last half century has tried it, including President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural pledge to “curb the size and influence of the federal establishment” and the Clinton administration’s efforts to “reinvent government.” Zients says his mandate is to make government open, efficient and “cool again,” by stimulating lasting change in the multitude of federal agencies, with the potential to save hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming decade.
“Too often in Washington, we spend more time developing, debating and deciding which policies to pursue than we do actually figuring out how to implement them,” White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, who recruited Zients, said in a speech last week. “But in reality, execution matters – and matters a lot.”
Government experts say the problem has always been measuring performance in a meaningful wayand acting on the results rather than simply establishing a complicated performance measurement system that spits out a score but doesn't result in change. It is also extremely difficult to marry the bottom-line focus of a relatively small handful of budget officers with the program goals and institutional knowledge of the over 2 million employees in the federal government.
Another big challenge for Zients and OMB will be finding ways to modernize and consolidate the government’s computer system, with its 1,100 data centers located throughout the country. Orszag last week said that the government’s “IT gap” compared to private industry, is the biggest reason for its sluggish productivity growth. He added that closing the gap is “perhaps the single most important step we can take in creating a more efficient and responsive government.”