Long before Mark W. Everson took on the job of remaking the federal government, he learned his first lesson in the trials of management on a poultry farm in Africa.
The future management guru at the Office of Management and Budget was just a teenager in over his head at a job his father had gotten him after he finished high school a year early.
"I was 17, and I had 35 people working for me on a [poultry] butchery," Everson said. "Relative to my experience level and maturity, probably running that butchery at age 17 in Kitwe, Zambia, was the toughest it got."
Three decades later, the former corporate finance executive is a more seasoned manager -- and his job has gotten tougher still.
Everson, confirmed by the Senate in August as deputy director for management, is junior only to Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. at OMB. He is responsible for transforming the vast federal bureaucracy into the leaner, more businesslike operation President Bush has called for in the 71-page "President's Management Agenda." It is Everson's job to ensure that agencies open more jobs to competition with the private sector, scrub programs of fraud and mismanagement, make more services available online and link program funding to performance.
If that weren't enough, he also is one of the top officials planning the merger of 22 agencies and 170,000 employees into the proposed new Department of Homeland Security.
The broad mandate has brought Everson into conflict with employee unions and entangled him in the fight over how much authority the president should have in personnel matters at the homeland security agency. The proposed new agency has also put him in the unusual position of overseeing the expansion of the bureaucracy even as he serves a Republican administration dedicated to the idea of smaller government.
Much different than running a chicken farm, but in some ways equally messy.
"It's a lot of hard work, but it's a lot of fun, too," Everson said. "This has been so neglected. . . . Because the president has stuck by the agenda -- he mentions it frequently to his Cabinet officers, and Mitch is on it all the time -- it's not second sister to the budget in the way that it frequently has been in the past."
Paul C. Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, called Everson a "good guy" with a committed staff who will need more tools to meet Bush's goals.
"It's a lot of responsibility with no authority; that's the nature of this job," Light said. "You're supposed to change the management of agencies, but you really have few levers to work with."
Everson says he can do it. One of the levers is a traffic-light system that he devised for rating agencies' performance -- green for success, yellow for mixed results and red for unsatisfactory -- that he says rewards managers for progress and prods poor performers to improve.
"Clearly, you are seen as lagging behind your Cabinet or other agency colleagues. And nobody likes to be in that situation," Everson said. "It's true that we can't tell people what to do in the same sense that the direct-line supervisor can, but I think we have considerable tools and influence."
He also is overseeing the implementation of Bush's "competitive sourcing" initiative, which is supposed to improve services by opening up hundreds of thousands of government jobs to competition from the private sector. Employee unions say it is simply an attempt to shrink their ranks.
In the fight over the proposed homeland security department, Everson is making the case for curtailing union influence and planning the integration of major border and transportation agencies, such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service and the Transportation Safety Administration.
"I think people are afraid of change," Everson said. "It's not about trying to fight the unions. It's about trying to manage the government more effectively."
Bobby L. Harnage Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, has been upset with Bush's plan for the homeland security agency but said he's been impressed with Everson. Harnage believes that, over time, the two could establish a good working relationship, but he declines to rate Everson's performance.
"It's hard to judge what kind of job anybody is doing in this administration, because it's hard to determine who is in charge," Harnage said. "Even if he agrees with us on some things, he doesn't have the clout to make it happen."
Robert O'Neill Jr., president of the National Academy of Public Administration, who has served as an adviser to Everson, said Everson's government experience showed him how hard it is to change agencies, while his private-sector background taught him innovative ways to do it.
"Mark's challenge is going to be how to spread himself so that he can have the kind of impact that he needs to have both governmentwide and on specific questions like homeland security," O'Neill said. "Those are big pieces for anybody, much less to take them on at the same time."
The son of a lawyer and a chemist, Everson grew up as the oldest of three children in the suburbs of New York and graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He studied history and ran cross country at Yale. He still runs three or four miles a day.
Everson worked at an accounting firm for six years after college, taking a leave in 1982 after his sister Margaret, 24, a graduate student at Rice University in Houston, was murdered as she returned from a night out.
"That prompted a reflection that life is short and you've got to do something meaningful where you can," Everson said. "That, as much anything else, was what led me to join the Reagan administration."
Everson changed his affiliation from independent to Republican and signed on as a special assistant to the director of the U.S. Information Agency. His big job was to help set up Radio Marti, a Miami-based U.S. government radio station that broadcasts news and music to Cuba.
As deputy director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1987, he implemented the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which offered amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants but required employers to begin verifying their workers' status. Under Everson's guidance, the INS opened 107 offices and hired 2,000 new employees.
Everson spent most of the 1990s as an executive at Pechiney, a French aluminum packaging products company. The job took him and his wife, Nanette, to Chicago, Indiana, Turkey and Paris. It also required him to learn French, which he called "the hardest thing I've ever done."
While living in Turkey, they adopted a boy and a girl from a local orphanage. Leonard, now 15, attends ninth grade at Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, Va.; Emma, 14, is a seventh-grader at St. Agnes School in Arlington. The Eversons also have a former foster daughter, Amrong Yap, 30, now married with two children who call Everson "Grandpa."
In 1998, eager to return to the United States, the family moved to the Dallas area, where Everson had landed a job as a vice president for finance for SC International Services Inc., a company that caters airline meals.
But he returned to the federal government last year, becoming controller in the office of federal financial management in OMB.
His wife, an attorney and member of the White House Counsel's office, works one floor below him. He pops down to see her at least once a day.
Everson approaches his job like a long-distance runner who perseveres by focusing on the next stride rather than the finish line.
"These jobs last as long as they last, and you have to enjoy them along the way," he said. "I'd like to stay as long as they'll have me."