OMB nominee Donovan promises to build on predecessor's success, progress

Thursday - 6/12/2014, 4:06am EDT

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Shaun Donovan will have big shoes to fill if he's confirmed as the next director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle praised former OMB head and now Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. She is widely recognized for reinvigorating the management side of the House and working more closely with Congress.

But Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee lawmakers say Donovan is a good choice to improve upon Burwell's short-term accomplishments.

Shaun Donovan (File photo)

"The director of the Office of Management and Budget is a critical player in making progress in each of these areas and in putting our nation on a responsible long-term fiscal path. We need a leader in this role who will be a strong voice for fiscal responsibility and for effective government management," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the committee. "We had that in Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who played an integral part in achieving the bipartisan budget deal reached late last year. I believe we have the same kind of leader in Shaun Donovan as well. To those of us in Congress and many other Americans, Secretary Donovan is a familiar face, having served as secretary of HUD for the last five years now. From his work there, we know he can take on tough problems. Secretary Donovan's tenure at Department of Housing and Urban Development gives him a strong foundation of understanding how agencies tick. He also knows how the federal budget process works."

Donovan's management style and priorities — should the Senate confirm him as President Barack Obama's fourth permanent OMB director in five years — are well known.

During his appearance before the committee, Donovan shed some light on where he would start, and among the first things he'd do is build on the budding relationships Burwell started with the committee, Congress more broadly and others across the government.

"When she came in, she was very focused on making sure not just the 'M' side of OMB wasn't forgotten, but that in fact the 'M' side and the 'B' side of OMB worked very closely together," Donovan said. "I believe very deeply, as you heard a little bit about today, that I often say to my team, 'Too often we don't know what success looks like in government.' By measuring, setting clear goals and measuring those goals, I believe we not only can achieve success in achieving the ends of government, but we can also save money for taxpayers, and that's where we have to make sure the 'M' and 'B' in OMB are connecting."

Career staff needs a boost

Donovan said during his five years as secretary of HUD, he grew frustrated, at times, over the silos or lack of coordination among agencies.

He said, if confirmed, he would use OMB's special position in the government to ensure more and better coordination on programs and projects. He said HUD's success in working with the Veterans Affairs Department to end veterans' homelessness and with 18 other agencies on the Hurricane Sandy relief effort shows the potential of what could be done.

The other management issue he would try to further Burwell's efforts on is the need to boost the career staff at OMB.

"To be frank, if I'm confirmed, 2 1/2 years isn't a long time. I do believe that it is absolutely critical to make sure that OMB is adding to the terrific team that is there with the best and the brightest, and to making sure that the institution is strong, particularly among the career staff that is there," he said. "So not just managing across government, but managing OMB itself as an institution is something [Burwell] is focused on, and it's something I'd want to continue."

If Donovan lasts to the end of President Obama's term, he would be the longest serving Senate-confirmed OMB director of the last eight years, with the three others lasting about 15 months, on average.

OMB's need to boost the career staff came out clearly during Burwell's recent testimony before the House Appropriations Committee. OMB is requesting a $4.2 million increase in its budget for fiscal 2015. It needs the money because its staff is down by 11 percent since 2010, yet its workload has increased. For example, there are 40 mentions of OMB in the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, as compared to 18 mentions of OMB in the original GPRA in 1993.

Donovan's experience at HUD also will play well into his management style at OMB.

He said at HUD and during his tenure with the City of New York as its housing chief, his focus on metrics always helped drive his management style.

"I created both in my office in New York and here at HUD, an office of strategic planning and management, whose specific responsibility was to create and track those metrics across the most critical programs, and frankly to do process improvement work, as well. It's one thing to identify the problem, but then you have to go fix it," he said. "Having the capacity to actually have a team that can go in almost like an internal consultant within the agency to do that is absolutely critical. I think that's, to be frank, many people this is not an area that they think is the most interesting or noteworthy around government. I'm not only interested in doing this, but I'm actually passionate about it, and I drive my team crazy at HUD in terms of wanting to understand the numbers."

His passion and dedication came through, as he said he attended every single HUDStat meeting over the last five years as a way to demonstrate personal leadership that data and measuring success if important. HUDStat is the process by which the agency set, measured and oversaw its high priority goals.

DATA Act implementation questioned

Donovan said he believes that using data to measure success and knowing what success looks like is something else he would bring to OMB.

Along with performance management, the committee pressed Donovan on his commitment to implementing the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act).

The President signed the bill into law in May.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former OMB director, said he's been less than pleased with the administration's response to how it will oversee the DATA Act's implementation.

Donovan promised it would be among his top priorities.

"I know that OMB is currently trying to understand with agencies what system changes and what investments are going to be required," he said. "You have my commitment to come back very quickly if I'm confirmed and work with you to meet those timelines."

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the committee, said the fact that agencies don't know the spending information they already have should be proof enough to Donovan as to why the DATA Act is so important.

"This is a pretty straight-forward bill," Coburn said. "The very fact that, across the government agencies don't know where they are spending their money and don't aggregate those to look at it so they can comply with the DATA Act, is the very reason we wanted the DATA Act in the first place. We want to force that consolidation of data, so they actually know what they are doing and where they are spending their money."

Examples of reducing program duplication

Lawmakers also brought up several other big management issues, including technology, security clearances and strategic sourcing. Donovan offered few, if any, new insights into his priorities around these topics.

The other one issue that Donovan really highlighted was reducing duplication among federal programs.

Donovan said this continues to be a major focus at HUD.

"We have 13 different rental assistance programs at HUD. Some of that makes sense. We have a program for seniors and a program for people with disabilities that have logical differences. But too often those differences are just history and circumstance rather than being logical," he said. "So I started an effort called the rental assistance demonstration, which is about two-thirds of the way consolidating older, frankly, obsolete programs, into a single program. We've been working with the Senate budget committee and we've been able to start to consolidate about one-fifth of all public housing into the Section 8 program. I think there is more work we can do with executive authority."

Donovan said the biggest challenge is getting Congress to agree to the changes.

"I do think we need to find ways, and I'd love to talk to you further about it to get suggestions, on ways that we could drive not just ideas about consolidations, but get to bipartisan consensus, where we could achieve legislative reforms both in the budget and in other ways, as well," he said.

The committee seemed supportive of Donovan's nomination. There was little push back from the lawmakers. Only Coburn offered a few words of frustration with how HUD responded to his requests in a timely manner.

So now the next step is for the committee to vote on Donovan and then if he's approved, which looks likely, he would go before the full Senate for a vote.

In the meantime, Brian Deese, the deputy director for budget, now is the acting director, making him at least the fourth acting director in five years.

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