WASHINGTON — A career management consultant with a knack for taming bureaucratic backlogs is the man President Barack Obama is now counting on to help turn around a problem-plagued website that has marred the rollout of Obama's signature health care law.
Jeffrey Zients helped eliminate the backlogs that were created when a federal program that promised cash rebates to people who traded in their clunkers for more fuel-efficient vehicles was swamped by demand.
He did it again when the same thing happened as veterans began signing up for benefits under an updated GI Bill.
Now, Zients has been tasked with taking a troubled website that has given opponents of the health care law new reasons to argue that it should be delayed and turn it into the breezy, insurance shopping site Obama had promised it would be.
The longtime management consultant came out of temporary retirement from the federal government on Monday and quietly dived into his new assignment. Zients left the administration earlier this year after the budget director's job went to someone else, but he had agreed before the health care troubles surfaced to become Obama's chief economic adviser next year as director of the National Economic Council.
Zients, pronounced zye-ents, will provide short-term advice, assessments and recommendations to a Department of Health and Human Services team said to be working 24-7 to fix the HealthCare.gov website. Administration officials, from Obama on down, had promoted the site as the first stop for uninsured people in 36 states trying to figure out what coverage they can afford. Many people have reported having trouble using the site and the administration is now urging people to try signing up by telephone, mail or in person.
Zients has led some of the country's top management firms, advising companies worldwide.
He joined the administration in 2009 as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and the nation's first chief performance officer. He also served two stints as OMB's acting director, and led an effort to streamline government by selling off unused or underused real estate to save money. The effort stalled in Congress.
He was acting OMB director from January 2012 through April 2013, when the Senate confirmed Sylvia Mathews Burwell as director.
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's track record amounts to "a relentless focus on execution."
"If I was confident this issue would be resolved before his participation, I am doubly so now," said Chopra, who worked for Zients at the Advisory Board Co., one of two business advisory firms where Zients held top posts.
In 2009, after far more drivers than anticipated signed up for the Cash for Clunkers program and the federal website created 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 covering expenses until their claims could be processed. At one point, Zients, Chopra and Vivek Kundra, then the chief technology officer, flew to a VA processing center in St. Louis to size up the problems.
Before Zients joined the administration, he was chief executive officer and chairman of the Advisory Board Co., and chairman of the Corporate Executive Board. Zients also founded Portfolio Logic, an investment firm that focused on business and health care service companies.
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