Obama’s top management guru frustrated by government shutdown

April 7, 2011

If things had gone differently, Jeffrey D. Zients this week might have been worrying about the Washington Nationals’ batting order. Instead — just as he’s starting to think about reorganizing dozens of federal agencies — he’s preparing for a government shutdown.

Zients, who grew up in the area and helped bring Major League Baseball back to the District, is the nation’s first chief performance officer and deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget. That means he’s the guy responsible for ensuring that federal agencies and departments are ready to shut down this weekend, if they must.

It’s been a rough few weeks packed with meetings and conference calls to instruct department secretaries and chiefs of staff how to cease operations. He’s also dealt with leaders of unions representing federal workers upset about the slow release of information about the fate of employees should the government close.

In an interview Thursday, Zients (rhymes with “pints”) said he’s especially concerned about the rank and file “and the uncertainty that they’re dealing with, the possibility that they will be furloughed.”

“I’m worried about the economic impact, and I’m hopeful that we can avoid this,” he said. “But if it is to happen, we are well prepared to execute on the plans.”

Government management and budget concerns rarely earn wide attention — and if they do, it’s usually because of mismanagement, overspending and allegations of fraud and abuse.

Almost every government decision regarding purse and policy must pass through OMB before it becomes official. While Director Jacob J. Lew — a vet­eran of the Clinton-era shutdowns — is focused on budget negotiations, Zients and dozens of officials familiar with federal contracting, grants and information technology pore over agency contingency plans.

This week, after days of complaints from the rank and file, OMB told agencies to start sharing details with workers.

“It’s been important to ensure that each agency’s leadership owns their plan,” Zients said. “We’ve been communicating with agencies about that, that we’re here and able to help.”

During a prolonged shutdown, Zients said, agencies are instructed to review their plans daily and to bring back nonessential staffers if necessary.

Zients, 44, had spent his career in the private sector until President Obama, who campaigned on a pledge to root out waste and make government “cool again,” asked him to tackle federal management concerns.

Once the budget mess passes, Zients and his team will get back to other concerns. Obama expects ideas on how to merge a dozen trade and export agencies by June — in hopes of demonstrating his pro-business bona fides. In an age of austerity, Zients is pushing agencies to curb the use of no-bid or open-ended government contracts and to sell off excess federal buildings. He’s also finding ways to revamp the federal hiring process, so agencies can quickly hire new recruits.

Zients grew up in Kensington, attended the St. Albans prep school and graduated from Duke University. He briefly worked at the consulting firm Bain & Co. in Boston. Soon after, he returned to Washington and quickly rose to become a close confidant of David G. Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media and the Corporate Executive Board.

“I’ve had 6,000 colleagues, and he is the most impressive aggregation of talent I’ve ever worked with,” Bradley said in a recent interview.

The pair later joined other investors to woo the Montreal Expos to Washington. They brought baseball back to town but lost a bid to own the team. Zients would have served as CEO.

Contingency plans, nonessential personnel and parade cancellations — those are the issues that have his focus now.

In fact, he said, one of his biggest regrets this week — especially because he’s an area native — is not realizing how a shutdown would affect the region.

“We didn’t think through, that in our own back yard, this is a big weekend for Washington, with the Cherry Blossom Parade and other activities and that if we unfortunately shut down, those activities would not occur.”

If things had gone differently, he’d be facing another challenge: The Nationals are, after all, stuck in the cellar.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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