OMB's O'Keefe mixes academic eye with fed expertise in a return to Washington
How do you explain to your two youngest children that you have accepted a job that promises 15-hour days at a government salary and requires you to move three states southward?
"I said, "Well, this is like the equivalent of being invited to play fantasy baseball with the All-Star team,' and they said, "OK, I get that!' " said Sean O'Keefe, the new deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
It was the policies and the philosophy of then-president-elect George W. Bush that convinced O'Keefe to leave his job as a professor at Syracuse University and re-enter government service after spending almost seven years outside the Beltway. In his office, school portraits of O'Keefe's three children sit beside photos of him and Colin Powell from when they were both at the Defense Department. Balancing his family life in upstate New York with his key administration job comes with the territory — but it hasn't been easy. It's "a real pain in the neck, I can tell you."
As deputy director, he is the second-in-command at the executive office that wields the greatest influence over government functions. And as one of only two confirmed appointees at OMB, O'Keefe is also spending much time handling the management and information technology issues that usually fall in the bailiwick of the deputy director for management — a position for which Bush still seeks a nominee.
O'Keefe brings a varied background and an important sense of perspective to his new job, which "doesn't necessarily help you get to a solution any faster, but you sure can figure out where folks are coming from," he said. During the past 20 years, he served on the Senate Appropriations Committee and as chief budget officer in the Pentagon, and lectured on the combination of business and government policy at Syracuse.
Now, in leading the formulation and implementation of Bush's policy views through the federal budget, he looks forward to applying the "classical kind of conservative political economy view" that he spent so much time talking about to graduate students who just "glossed over it."
"Things like e-gov — all those [things] ought to be guided by the view that says, "Forget about what is the optimum [IT] solution; if it doesn't respond to a citizen interest, then what are we doing it for?' " he said.
O'Keefe has had assorted jobs in both the executive and legislative branches during his long tenure in government, but he still has little patience for the maneuvering that goes on in Washington. An issue guaranteed to raise his ire is the Senate confirmation process, which he recently endured and which awaits the nominees for other top OMB policy posts: the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
Until the Senate confirms John Graham to lead OIRA, which oversees agency IT issues such as security and privacy, and Angela Styles at OFPP, which oversees acquisition practices, O'Keefe and OMB Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. will be spending an awful lot of time on issues they would not normally dive into this deep, O'Keefe said.
"We're just really anxious for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to turn their attention to those two nominees...[but] they're certain to get to them with all deliberate speed, like the Senate gets to everything else," he said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
OMB also relies on agency chief information officers who must continue the work toward e-government even without the OMB deputy director for management, O'Keefe said. But the difficulty in getting top-level appointees in place indicates that installing CIOs or other cross-government officials will take time, he said.
Delegating and spreading responsibility are crucial in the new administration, "kind of [moving] toward Cabinet governance here, if you will," O'Keefe said. During the 2003 budget process, OMB will work closely with department heads, not just on numbers, but on concepts and proposals from the Bush team. And O'Keefe has already met with the CIO Council to evaluate the governmentwide IT management issues that support much of Bush's agenda.
"It's less now a "here's the decision over the transom,' and more of a "here's a deliberate approach that says here's how we want to proceed with this and we're here to make that feasible,' " he said.
That "Cabinet governance" approach to agencies will manifest itself in the weeks to come, O'Keefe said, and department leaders can be expected to exert their authority. "This approach is very much a manifestation of the president's general philosophy."
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