Danny Werfel

Government Executive of the Year

Werfel championed technology's problem-solving power

With newly minted degrees in law and public policy in the late 1990s, Danny Werfel might not have seemed an obvious choice as a passionate advocate of using technology to solve the ills of government. By the time he became controller of the Office of Management and Budget in 2009, however, he was a leading force for the application of technology in federal financial management.

It was shortly after he first joined OMB more than a decade earlier that Werfel got his initial grounding in what technology could mean for government. He worked on ways to improve the federal student aid application process at a time when nearly all applicants for aid filed paper forms. It was a time when the Web as we know it was still being fleshed out.

Those seem like ancient times compared to now, when virtually all student aid applications are done through the Web, Werfel said. However, even then, when there were complex barriers to its use, such as how to sign electronic forms, the Web was having an impact. .

“There were a lot of forward thinkers at OMB and the Education Department at that time, and it was my first lesson in seeing how different the world could be when you move from paper to electronic processes,” he said. “It becomes much easier on the user end, and on the government side there are much reduced opportunities for error and the quality of the information you get is much better.”

Fast forward to 2009, and even though belief in IT had become much more prevalent, there was a tension in financial management ranks that Werfel said resulted from that belief rubbing up against a history of large systems modernization programs that had not been going well.

“When I became controller in October of that year, I knew that one of the first jobs I had to do was reconcile that tension,” Werfel said.  He started by freezing all financial system modernizations in the summer of 2010, then bringing together key agency leaders and subject matter experts to examine every financial system in the government.

People skills and the ability to form effective strategies to building solutions is probably as important to Werfel’s success as his understanding of the role of technology, said Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government. 

As the then-branch chief at OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Chenok gave Werfel his first government job.

“Danny is very perceptive at looking at the forces around him and bringing them together to accomplish change,” Chenok said. “Even from the first interview I had with him, he excelled at putting together the analysis of an issue with an understanding of the impact of policy and regulation, and also demonstrated early on he could have a conversation about that with executives much more senior than he was and keep things focused.”

All of that led to Werfel being the person the administration called on, especially in recent years, to take on the really hard challenges, such as sequestration, a potential government shutdown or Recovery Act oversight, Chenok said.

Werfel recently moved on to help with technology modernization and other needs at the IRS, where he was appointed acting commissioner on May 15, after controversy forced out the former commissioner.

The IRS is already well along with its financial systems modernization, Werfel said, noting that he is “pleased that the governmentwide requirements we launched and drove during my 16 years at OMB have had an impact on the team here.” But there’s a critical need for other modernizations at IRS, particularly for fraud detection technology, something he also advocated for while at OMB.

“So, now I’m rolling up my sleeves to help with that,” he said.

Read about more 2013 GCN Awards winners.

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