White House hints at new government priorities

Tuesday - 11/2/2010, 6:44am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

No matter the outcome of today's congressional elections, top White House officials say they plan to continue their push to reform government as Barack Obama enters the third year of his presidency.

Hints of the year to come came in a speech and panel discussion led by Jeffrey Zients, the White House Chief Performance Officer and acting head of the Office of Management and Budget at yesterday's Excellence In Government Conference.

For one thing, Zients and Vivek Kundra, federal chief information officer, say count on more of the same when it comes to cracking down on bloated, inefficient information technology projects. Without offering any details, Zients hinted that in a few weeks OMB would have more reforms to announce when it comes to the management of IT projects in federal agencies.

Kundra told the Excellence in Government audience that "We're going to continue to build…on the 35 technical review sessions," held so far as agencies are asked to justify their IT modernization projects.

The White House, said Kundra, is "making sure they're scoped properly, that they deliver, and especially in this tough economic environment, that those projects that don't produce dividends for the American people - we end up terminating them."

Kundra also hinted that one large federal agency may be getting some more attention in the year to come when it comes to the intersection of IT and citizen service:

I just came out of a session with the Social Security Administration. We were talking about how you build the next generation Social Security Administration. Part of what's going on over there is a massive investment in customer relationship management, and you look at the investment we're making in simplifying access to Social Security benefits.

Kundra explains that where possible, they are making investments in modernizing technology infrastructure, and at the same time working on how agencies deliver services to citizens.

Along those lines, Zients also hinted at a new project to analyze how the federal government delivers services to citizens.

"It looks at the high volume services across government, and looks at what are the standards, the high quality standards, and looking at how we're performing."

For the most part, though, Zients used part his presentation to offer a look back at the accomplishments of the past year. He noted that it was about a year ago that he had some to last year's 2009 Excellence in Government conference to lay out the six top priorities he'd laid out for the Obama Administration since coming on board as Chief Performance Officer:

  • Drive top priorities
  • Reduce waste
  • Reform contracting
  • Close the IT performance gap
  • Attract and motivate top talent
  • And drive results through open government.

Zients methodically made his way through the six priorities, citing examples of how the administration has worked within the boundaries of Executive Branch authority to change what it can in government. He noted how the Department of Veterans Affairs has teamed with Housing and Urban Development to combat homelessness among returning military veterans. And how they've developed ground breaking software applications to battle the scourge of improper payments among those receiving economic stimulus payments. He discussed the huge, cross-agency contract to save money through strategic sourcing of office supplies. And also talked about the effort to cut the federal hiring process, and make a cover letter and resume the means of choice for applying for a federal job.

In general, Zients believes the administration has a lot to be proud of, saying that, "While we certainly have much left to do, our progress to date gives me a lot of optimism. Because we're building momentum, and I believe that this momentum will lead to more of the results we want and need, and most importantly this momentum will lead to sustained structural improvement."

With all of that, however, Zients and his team could not escape a few questions about some of the ugly realities they face while governing in the year to come. For example, Zients was asked to comment on the effort to advance and innovate in government at a time when Congress remains deadlocked on something as basic this year's budget resolution. Zients decided to delegate that question to OMB Comptroller Danny Werfel. "It's not a new challenge," Werfel responded, saying "it's one that the government deals with every year. During a period when there's a continuing resolution, there's a lot of ability for the agencies to be working and planning for what is coming down the pike."

He adds that agency heads have some idea where Congress wants them to go because even though there's still no budget resolution, congressional committees have already approved language in agency budgets, offering general ideas on how to proceed once spending bills are approved.

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