New sheriff faces tough job

Jan. 12, 2009

by Ivan Raconteur

President-elect Barack Obama may have conferred a great honor on Nancy Killefer when he tapped her to be the nation's first chief performance officer, but he didn't do her any favors personally.

If she is any good at the job (and we had better hope that she is), she will soon be one of the most unpopular people in Washington.

Killefer, a former treasury department chief financial officer who is currently head of the Washington office of consulting company McKinsey & Co., has been charged with the monumental task of working with government officials to increase efficiency and eliminate governmental waste. Obama has called for the overhaul of entitlement and spending programs, and it will be Killefer's job to oversee these changes.

There are some lonely days ahead for the new CPO.

The job title may be new, but the concept is not. Unfortunately, real victories in the war on waste have been as rare as wine drinkers at the Long Branch Saloon.

One would not suggest that government officials prefer waste and inefficiency. There are almost certainly a few people in Washington who sincerely believe in lean and responsible government.

The problem is that bureaucrats, like most of us, find change much easier to accept when it is someone else who is being asked to change.

There are an awful lot of deeply entrenched insiders in government who are perfectly happy with the status quo, and who will fight to the death (or at least vigorously) to protect their jobs and their own little fiefdoms, regardless of whether they are efficient or necessary.

Under Obama’s directive, even programs that were once valid and important will be up for the chop if they no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended.

Presumably, Killefer will also root out duplication of resources and redundancy of purpose while streamlining departmental processes. This will not make her popular inside the beltway.

Killefer’s new role is not unlike that of the town tamers in western movies.

The plot usually went something like this: the good guy, who may have been a sheriff or even a retired gunfighter (the main job requirement was that he was a person of principle) rode into a corrupt town and turned things upside down until everything was cleaned up and running the way it should.

The conflict and the drama came in when the new sheriff began to implement change. People, both in the old west and in Washington, often need some help and strong encouragement to do the right thing.

In the movies, the hero often had to shoot a few bad guys to convince people he was serious. Sadly, Killefer will probably have to find some more civilized methods to accomplish her mission.

Even in cases where the town council or the people of the town hired the new sheriff and asked him to clean up the town, they often did not support him along the way. Sometimes, they resisted his efforts to implement change. Killefer will no doubt encounter some resistance in her job as well.

In Washington, even those who claim to support cuts and changes are usually talking about other areas, not their own pet programs or departments.

What one person considers waste might be deemed absolutely vital by someone else. Overcoming political pressure in order to make real progress could be the toughest part of the job.

When it comes to corruption and bad habits, Washington is far worse than Dodge City or Tombstone on their worst days. Killefer will need all of the cool resolve of Clint Eastwood or Henry Fonda (there weren't a lot of female sheriffs in the old west) to succeed in her mission, and I wish her well.

If, by some miracle she succeeds in cleaning up the national government, perhaps she will be able to find some good deputies and start working on state governments next.