When a federal program that promised cash rebates to people who traded in their clunkers for more fuel-efficient vehicles was overrun by demand, President Barack Obama assigned Jeffrey Zients, his deputy budget director, to help eliminate the backlog.
When the same thing happened with sign-ups for an updated version of the GI Bill, one designed to help the 9/11 generation of veterans get a college education, Obama again turned to Zients for help.
Now, as Obama’s health care website continues to be plagued by a rash of technical problems that have turned it into an administration embarrassment and a source of frustration for uninsured people trying to sign up for coverage that the law now requires many of them to have, who has Obama called for help? Zients, his Mr. Fix-it.
Faced with mounting questions about the website, the Obama administration announced Tuesday that the longtime management consultant will help fix the problems and turn the site into the breezy, one-stop shopping portal Obama promised it would be.
Zients came out of a temporary retirement from the federal government and quietly jumped in to his new assignment Monday. He left the administration earlier this year after the budget director’s job went to someone else. Last month, Obama announced that Zients would take over next year as director of the National Economic Council, becoming the president’s chief economic adviser.
Zients will provide short-term advice, assessments and recommendations to a Department of Health and Human Services team that officials say has been working around the clock to fix healthcare.gov since it went live Oct. 1.
By many accounts, the 46-year-old Zients, who lives in Washington with his wife and four children, is well-respected and liked inside the White House.
“I think that’s why he’s continually being handed tough jobs,” said Kenneth Baer, who was a senior adviser to Zients at the budget office.
Zients grew up in the Washington area and spent his career in business before agreeing to work for Obama. That two decades of experience allowed him to bring a different perspective to government and how it should be run, Baer says.
“He’s not going to be looking under the hood and tell you, ‘I can fix the coding, I can fix it,’” Baer said of Zients’ newest assignment. “His skill is going to be how to identify challenges, prioritize what solutions need to be done next, assessing what talent is already available and then how to motivate them to do that job as quickly and as ably as possible.”
Aneesh Chopra, who was Obama’s chief technology officer, said Zients is extremely skilled in figuring things out from a management perspective.
“If I was confident this issue would be resolved before his participation, I am doubly so now,” said Chopra, who also worked with Zients at the Advisory Board Co., one of two business advisory firms where Zients has held top posts. “Jeff’s track record is really a relentless focus on execution.”
In 2009, after far more drivers than anticipated signed up for the Cash for Clunkers program and the federal website set up to process rebates of up to $4,500 per new car kept crashing under the weight of the demand, Zients helped smooth things out.
He played a similar role following the rocky rollout of a new GI Bill for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program had become so bogged down that the Veterans Affairs Department began to issue $3,000 advance checks to thousands of veterans who needed help paying expenses until their claims could be processed.
JEFFREY D. ZIENTS
Age; birthplace: 46; Kensington, Md.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, Duke University, 1988
Experience: Designated to serve as director, National Economic Council, beginning Jan. 1, 2014; acting director, Office of Management and Budget, January 2012-April 2013 and July-November 2010; deputy director for management at OMB and chief performance officer of the U.S., June 2009-July 2010; two decades as a CEO, management consultant and business executive
Family: Wife, Mary; four children
Quote: “We must and will continue to improve our operations and ensure we provide efficient and effective services to the American people.” — in OMB blog post, Sept. 12, 2012