When President Barack Obama stood at the lectern in the House chamber last week to deliver his State of the Union address, he struck many familiar campaign-trail themes.
But one passage in his speech that quickly piqued the interest of those in and outside government was his call for a major federal reorganization.
Obama touted efforts, such as using technology and cutting waste to make the government not only leaner, but also work more efficiently.
“But we need to think bigger,” he said. “In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America. I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote — and we will push to get it passed.”
If the business of government is business, perhaps it’s time for the government to be run a little more like a business.
Obama set his sights on what he characterized as a too-complicated network of government agencies with often duplicative tasks. For example, the regulation of salmon.
“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in when they’re in saltwater,” he explained. “And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”
After days of speculation about whom the Obama administration would task with taking the lead on the reorganization efforts, the White House officially announced Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and the nation’s first chief performance officer, would spearhead the reorg efforts.
In a White House blog post, Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, praised Zients for his leadership of the Accountable Government Initiative, a federal effort to make government more efficient and responsive. “On his watch, we have cut government waste,” through reducing improper payments, closing unused federal buildings and overhauling IT acquisition and management, Pfeiffer wrote.
While Zients has broken the mold as the first federal official tasked with performance, he is no stranger to overseeing better management techniques. Before his role in government, Zients served as CEO of the Advisory Board Company and chairman of the Corporate Executive Board, two executive consulting firms aimed at leveraging best practices in performance and management.
Assistant to the president and staff secretary Lisa Brown, who previously worked on the Obama transition team, will work under Zients on the reorg efforts, according to the blog post.
Observers and Obama, himself, have described the reorganization as the largest in half a century.
“The fact is that we live and do business in the information age,” Obama said during his State of the Union, “but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the middle of the last century.”
Contrast this with the many large-scale changes businesses and private industry have implemented over the years, he said.
“There has not been a business or large organization that has not rethought, retooled, and revamped how they did their job . . .Yet too often, it seems that the federal government is stuck in the age of black-and-white television while we are competing in the age of the iPad.”
In the blog post announcing Zients as the reorganization’s leaders, Pfeiffer said the first priority is reforming trade and exports “to give American companies a leg up in the global economy.”
Meanwhile, John Kamensky, a senior fellow with the IBM Center for the Business of Government, advised the administration not to go it alone on reorganization efforts.
“Congress needs to play an active role and reorganize itself, if any executive branch reorganization is to be successful,” he wrote in a blog post.
Relatively recent executive-level agency additions, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, led to funding and oversight “fragmentation,” Kamensky said, because a multitude of congressional subcommittees continued to hold authority over the agency missions. In the long run, that can lead to “dysfunctional behavior,” he wrote.
It’s likely Zients, who has a wealth of experience in the private sector, will seek to take a page from those industry best practices to significantly reorganize the government.