Jeffrey Zients has been the federal chief performance officer for a little over a year now.
DorobekInsider decided to catch up with him to see what’s changed so far, and what challenges he’s still facing.
Since he came from the private sector, we asked him about whether or not the comparison between public and private modes of operation is even fair, and he says in some cases, yes, and in others, no.
“The scale of the federal government is very, very different than any private sector company, so the size of the agencies and departments is very different than what anyone would experience in the private sector. What is very similar is the talent of the people. At the end of the day, all of us know that people drive performance.”
One of the criticisms that government often faces from those who come from the private sector has to do with the length of time it takes to facilitate change.
Now that he’s been in his position for awhile, Zients says, again, it’s all about the size of the federal government.
“Figuring out the handful of priorities is important in any setting, [but] given the scale and complexity of the federal government, prioritization is even more important. But, what I’ve found is when you focus on something, given the talent and the commitment of the workforce, you can get things done.”
Since the position of chief performance officer focuses on reform, Zients says one of his main goals is making the operation of government easier.
Zients says, while IT is difficult in any sector, the federal government has too many large scale IT projects that run over budget and behind schedule.
“We need to make things easier by making sure that projects are scaled appropriately, that they have the right milestones and that senior political leaders and leaders across government work together and that we don’t attempt to do these large scale IT projects just in the silo of technology; but that, instead, there’s cross-functional, senior ownership.”
And while large IT projects do fail in the private sector, Zients says the federal government has gotten a comparatively bad reputation because of a variety of factors.
“I think the frequency is higher here, in part because of the scale, and then also too often we set out to do too much at once, rather than doing it in smaller modules and making sure that we have check points along the way — and if things are not making it, that we recognize that and either re-scope or terminate the project.”
Of course doing this is, well, easier said than done. Zients says focusing on the largest and most troubled projects is one way OMB and the White House can get back on track.
“As we get good results, that will build momentum and begin to shift the expectations and shift the culture. We’re very focused on not trying to do everything at once, but rather get some early wins.”
Zients also says that making sure senior leadership has — and maintains — ownership of those large scale projects is key.
Zients says they got such a good response last year that OMB decided to do it again.
“From my private sector experience and now having seen last year’s SAVE Awards, I know that many of the best ideas are with the front line workers. Last year we had 38,000 ideas submitted. Many of those were implemented. . . . We’re really excited to get as many good ideas — cause they’re out there on the front lines — as we can, and to ensure that those ideas are implemented.”