The OMB's Benevolent Gadfly

"IT success is program success," said Clay Johnson III, deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

by / August 10, 2006

Clay Johnson III is President George W. Bush's point man for program performance in executive branch agencies. However, he is particularly devoted to assessing how IT can streamline government processes, and bringing greater efficiency and improved performance to the federal government.

The importance of that role has grown considerably since the first days of Bush's administration. In 2000, e-government still had a utopian ring to it, and the concepts of shared services, intergovernmental solutions and extensible markup language data exchanges had yet to bear any real fruit.

In 2000, federal IT spending had just reached the $33 billion mark. By 2006, the White House estimated spending had ballooned to more than $64 billion. The increase has sharpened the focus on what value taxpayers are getting from IT investments. Expectations have risen, as have questions and criticisms about the federal government's overall IT program.

While Karen Evans, the OMB's administrator of e-government and IT, has been the Bush administration's face for technology initiatives, Johnson has been the OMB's powerful presence for leading IT as a strategic initiative in government.

Using Communication to Serve
Johnson stepped down as the acting OMB director on June 2, 2006, after Rob Portman was sworn in as the new OMB director. Johnson juggled his two jobs until Portman was nominated to oversee the agency.

In his acceptance speech, Portman said he would continue the OMB's focus on collaboration and communication. Portman said that one of his priorities is frequent and intensive consultation with Congress. "I believe open lines of communication with colleagues -- on both sides of the aisle -- are key to addressing our fiscal challenges."

Portman also reiterated the OMB's special role within the federal government: The budget, all spending decisions, all major regulatory changes are within its purview, as is management oversight of the agencies. "Our mission is to make sure hard-earned taxpayer dollars are wisely spent," he said, "that government is more result-oriented and accountable."

Johnson's career prepared him for his present management of business processes and people, this time at the federal level. Before assuming his position at the OMB, Johnson served as chief of staff for Bush's gubernatorial administration, in Austin, Texas. He then became executive director of the Bush-Cheney Transition, and later, assistant to the president and director of presidential personnel. Johnson received his undergraduate degree from Yale University and a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

"Here is a guy close to the president, previously head of personnel, who could have his pick of jobs," said Alan P. Balutis, president and CEO of government strategies at INPUT, a Reston, Va.-based IT research firm. "Johnson wants to be in the job he's in, where he can really make a difference. He has support at the most senior levels and is listened to by Cabinet leaders. He has been remarkably on target. I give a lot of credit to Johnson for keeping the focus."

Scoring the Agencies
As a key representative of the administration, one of Johnson's central tasks is to lead the President's Management Agenda (PMA), which sets standards for agency success. "Forty percent of the average federal agency's management disciplines are as we want them to be," he said, "whereas 20 percent are unacceptable." In PMA scorecard terms, acceptably performing agencies are "green," and underperforming ones are "red."

"We now want to be held accountable for quantifiably and annually improving the way government works," Johnson said, "and be very candid and forthcoming at all times about where we're successful and where we fall short."

Johnson tasks all agencies with providing better levels of service and properly accounting for taxpayers' money. The PMA defines performance standards in the following areas: human capital, competitive sourcing, improved financial performance and e-government.

Johnson is conscious of the need for cross-agency cooperation. His communication style is open and informal. "I make every effort to address concerns and provide feedback as quickly as possible," he said, adding that as soon as a document or request reaches his desk, he tries to read through it and share his comments within the week. "I know how important immediate feedback is, and I make those requests a priority."

When asked if the OMB imposes too many documentation requirements on CIOs, making their work less strategic in value and more burdened by paperwork, Johnson responded: "We are conscious that too much paperwork is not desirable, but documentation is needed for accountability so agencies can demonstrate how they are meeting their goals."

Balutis commented on the place of CIOs on the federal level, vis-