Obama's efficiency expert

By Jia Lynn Yang, writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Efficient. Effective. Goal-oriented.

Not exactly the words most Americans would use to describe their federal government these days.

Jeff Zients, chief performance officer

Indeed, a recent Gallup poll showed Americans think the federal government wastes on average 50 cents of every dollar it gets. The budget deficit balloons, and President Barack Obama is under mounting pressure to squeeze more out of taxpayer dollars to jumpstart the economy.

Sounds like a job for a professional.

Enter Jeff Zients, a former management consultant and CEO who's now the country's first chief performance officer. Zients (rhymes with "science") arrived on the job June 29 with a mandate to make the government run smarter and cost less. Considering the scale, it's the ultimate management puzzle: how to hardwire a culture of efficiency into the nation's largest workforce (there are more than two million federal employees).

The 43-year-old Zients -- Obama-like in his youth, drive, and intellect -- built his career at two Washington-area consulting firms, the Advisory Board Company and the Corporate Executive Board. By the time he was 35, he had already landed a spot on Fortune's list of the richest Americans under 40, ranking 25th with an estimated worth of $149 million after the Advisory Board went public.

"What President Obama has done with the chief performance officer title is say, 'Management matters,'" explains Zients, who also holds a second title, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

Chief on Zients' to-do list is developing a performance measurement system that people will actually use. His CPO title may be new, but there's nothing new about administrations trying to tame the federal government with metrics. President Clinton implemented the Government Performance and Results Act. Then George W. Bush created the Program Assessment Rating tool.

The system has become labyrinthine, and as Zients said in his testimony this fall before the Senate Budget Committee: "The test of a performance management system is whether it is used...the current approach fails this test. Congress doesn't use it. Agencies don't use it. And it doesn't produce meaningful information for the public."

Also on the agenda: revamping information technology. Zients says the biggest gap he's seen between the public and private sectors is in the level of technology. His office, which works closely with Vivek Kundra, the chief information officer, and Aneesh P. Chopra, chief technology officer, is looking for ways to improve not only how technology is used among federal workers but also how to improve service for anyone interacting with the government.

For instance, over the summer, the CPO, CIO, and CTO offices together overhauled the way people could follow their applications to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Now applicants can see their status online or through email updates and find out how long each step typically takes.

On the management front, Zients is looking at how to nab the best candidates for government service. He said it takes an average of 140 days to hire someone in the federal government. "President Obama has talked about making government service cool again," says Zients. But "the best talent doesn't sit around for 140 days. We need to streamline the process."

A former colleague at the Advisory Board, Frank Williams, now executive chairman of the company, says Zients' analytical mind suits the massive task ahead. "In the consulting environment you are forced to take what are very complex businesses and problems and really try to get to the levers and drivers that really matter," says Williams. "I imagine there's a tremendous amount of complexity getting your hands around something like the government."

Given that the federal budget deficit hit $1.4 trillion in the last fiscal year, there's new pressure to make government more productive. In a recent report, McKinsey pointed out that while long-term productivity increases in the U.S. private sector on average 1.64% each year, the public-sector consistently lags behind. The report estimates the U.S. government could gain anywhere from $45 to $134 billion from increasing productivity. That's up to 1% of total GDP.

Dollars and cents matter for sure, but to get there, true management requires understanding and changing the culture of a place.

"There's not the equivalent here of a corporate bottom line. There aren't quarterly earnings here," says Zients. "But the overall goal is to improve the effectiveness [of government], make sure tax dollars are well spent, that government services can be smarter and faster and cost less."

Zients doesn't have much time to tame the beast that is our federal government, but then again, his entire job is to do more with less. To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 16.13 -0.26 -1.59%
Facebook Inc 59.72 0.63 1.07%
Yahoo! Inc 36.35 -0.02 -0.06%
Intel Corp 26.93 0.16 0.60%
Alcoa Inc 13.42 0.37 2.84%
Data as of Apr 16
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,424.85 162.29 1.00%
Nasdaq 4,086.23 52.06 1.29%
S&P 500 1,862.31 19.33 1.05%
Treasuries 2.64 0.01 0.34%
Data as of 5:49am ET


The company continues to struggle with convincing marketers to pay as much for mobile ads as they do for desktop ads. More

Indian markets are riding high as investors bet that an election and new administration will cure some of the country's economic ills. More

The company continues to struggle with convincing marketers to pay as much for mobile ads as they do for desktop ads. More

Schwinn, Trek and Cannondale are all iconic American bicycle brands. But none of them are made in the United States. More

Pamela Knighton, a 51-year-old social worker from Cuthbert, Ga. who earns less than $25,000 a year, had been really looking forward to her $4,300 tax refund last year. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.