Obama presses for smarter, more innovative government

Monday - 7/8/2013, 12:00pm EDT

President Barack Obama met with his mostly new Cabinet Monday to detail how he wants agencies to continue improving federal services, making the government more efficient and opening up federal data to the public.

In White House remarks after the meeting from the State Dining Room, Obama announced he's asked new Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Burwell to lead this reinvigorated effort to help agencies find more innovative ways to deliver better results.

Obama said he directed agency heads "to develop an aggressive management agenda for my second term that delivers a smarter, more innovative and more accountable government for its citizens."

The Senate confirmed Burwell in April. This is her first major initiative since taking over as director.

Following Obama's Cabinet meeting, an administration official said Burwell held a meeting with the President's Management Council, which is made up of agency deputy secretaries, to start discussing the next steps in the revamped management agenda, including working closely with members of the private sector with innovative backgrounds.

Obama: Initiative builds on past successes

In his White House remarks, Obama said the renewed management push would build upon first-term successes.

"We are the first to confess that progress has not always come quick and major challenges still remain," Obama said. "But we've made huge swaths of your government more efficient and more transparent and more accountable than ever before."

Obama said the management-agenda revamp will focus on three areas where the administration has already seen success: Finding ways to deliver government services more quickly and more conveniently, cutting duplicative and unnecessary programs, and expanding the number and type of government datasets provided online.

A large part of the initiative will be continuing to adopt good ideas from the private sector, he said, exemplified by the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. The White House chose a second class of 43 fellows late last month to work on nine different program areas that focus on bringing private- sector expertise to help solve public sector problems.

"These are Americans with vast private-sector technology expertise who have volunteered to come serve their country," he said.

Obama renews call for reorganization authority

Obama also renewed his call for Congress to authorize the president's ability to reorganize and consolidate executive branch agencies.

"We're doing a lot of this work administratively, but unfortunately there are still a bunch of rules, a lot of legislation that has poorly designed some of our agencies and forces folks to engage in bureaucratic hoop-jumping instead of just going ahead and focusing on mission and good service to our citizens."

Obama issued a proposal to Congress last January to merge six business- and trade-related agencies into a single entity, but the measure has languished in Congress since then.

"I'm going to keep on doing what we can administratively, but we sure could use Congress' help, particularly at a time when Congress is saying they want more efficient government — they give a lot of lip service to it — and we're operating under severe fiscal constraints," Obama said.

During the first four years of the Obama administration, the management agenda found pockets of success.

OMB promoted both a top-down and bottom-up approach. The top-down focus came most recently with the creation and oversight of 14 Cross-Agency Priority goals. The bottom up approach focused on OMB asking agencies to establish and update three-to-eight high priority, mission-focused goals.

"We've made some good progress on all fronts," Obama said. "But now we need to do more."

Mixed reaction from Capitol Hill

Obama's proposal drew a mixed reaction from Capitol Hill.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, appeared skeptical of Obama's renewed call for reorganization authority.

"This time, instead of trying to find a way to work around Congress, President Obama needs to approach Congress as a partner in reorganizing federal agencies and improving government performance," Issa said in a statement. "These are issues that Congress has said, on a bipartisan basis, it wants to address. There is common ground on these problems and members of both parties and both chambers stand ready to work as partners with the President."

The committee plans to hold a hearing Wednesday on unaddressed recommendations from the Government Accountability Office that show federal agencies struggling to track program performance.

In a statement, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he welcomed Obama's initiative. However, Carper called on the president to fill a key vacancy in OMB: the deputy director for management (DDM) role.

In addition, the agency is still lacking a chief performance officer and a permanent associate director for personnel and performance.

In fact, the DDM and CPO role has been filled on an interim basis for much of the last four years. Jeff Zients held those roles but was pulled in as acting director of OMB for extended periods of time, forcing OMB Controller Danny Werfel to be acting DDM. Zients left OMB to return to the private sector and Werfel became acting IRS commissioner in May. Shelly Metzenbaum served in the associate director role for four years, running the day-to-day performance agenda, but she too left OMB in May.

Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel is overseeing the performance management agenda, but he is not acting DDM. Dustin Brown is leading the personnel and performance office.

(Federal News Radio's Jack Moore contributed to this report)

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