The grants whisperer

Subdued leadership style builds consensus

At a conference a few years ago, Rebecca Spitzgo was milling about at the de rigueur social hour. It was her first day as program manager for Grants.gov, the e-government initiative that lets organizations apply online for more than $400 billion in federal grants.

A woman came up to Spitzgo, read her name tag and said, “Oh, you’re from Grants.gov. You don’t know how much money you’ve saved us. You’ve made our life so much easier, because we’re a small university.”

Five minutes later, another conference attendee did the same thing: read the name tag and told Spitzgo how Grants.gov had saved his organization money by bringing all the government’s grant opportunities together in a single site.

“That scene has been repeated time and time again,” Spitzgo said. “It’s been fantastic to have the privilege of working on Grants.gov.”

Spitzgo’s colleagues on Grants.gov are glad to return the compliment. They are unanimous in their praise of her leadership, management style and listening skills.

No screaming

“Becky is a quiet person,” said Brett Bobley, CIO of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “She’s not someone who screams to get consensus.”

Which, by all accounts, is an important part of how she builds consensus so easily.

Bobley credits Spitzgo with nurturing Grants.gov “from its infancy.” For years before the launch of Grants.gov in 2002, the federal government had talked about developing an electronic grant system, Bobley said. Agencies had launched several pilot projects, none of which had amounted to much. “A lot of people in the grants-making world were pessimistic about Grants.gov, saying, ‘Oh, it’s just another pilot project that’s going to fail.’ ”

But together with Charlie Havekost, CIO of the Health and Human Services Department, which is the managing partner for Grants.gov, Spitzgo took on the initiative with “evangelical fervor,” Bobley said. It reminded him of the “early days of the Internet, when the motto was ‘rough consensus, running code.’ Meaning that if you sit around and talk about a new computer project, you’ll never get it done.”

Bobley admired the way Spitzgo would do her best to accommodate everyone. For example, at a Grants.gov stakeholder meeting, Spitzgo showed an elaborate chart of the 26 largest grant-making agencies. As a representative of a smaller agency, Bobley went to her and said, “Rebecca, we really can’t forget about the smaller agencies. The idea behind Grants.gov is to have every federal grant opportunity made available.” So without a murmur, she went back and redid the chart, adding 11 of the smaller agencies.

During a radio interview a few years ago, Spitzgo’s unassuming style impressed Jerry Fralick, CIO of the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs. Listening to the show, Fralick realized Spitzgo barely said a word about herself. She talked exclusively about the Grants.gov community. That’s a big part of what makes her such a good leader, he said. “It’s not about her. That’s how Becky comes across.”

But don’t let Spitzgo’s reserved demeanor fool you into thinking she’s a pushover. “She’s very results-oriented,” HHS’ Havekost said. “Becky focuses on what needs to be done and finds ways to get around the hurdles, as opposed to focusing on the hurdles.”

‘Aha’ moments

Spitzgo likes structure and thrives under pressure. “People need deadlines and goals,” she said. Her straightforward style lets her staff and colleagues “know what you get, once you’ve been around me for a while. I’ll put my cards on the table.”

Although she values metrics and procedures, Spitzgo has also had some more visionary, “aha!” moments with Grants.gov.

Before signing on with Grants.gov, Spitzgo had worked for the Education Department, which she described as “a very Web-based world.” But the emphasis on the Web led to what she called “horsepower” problems.

In a moment of epiphany, Spitzgo realized that for the purposes of Grants.gov, downloadable, fillable forms would be more viable than a purely Web-based, HTML environment.

Of the 25 Quicksilver initiatives, Grants.gov was one of the first two to meet all its original objectives. Spitzgo is quick to dodge credit for the initiative’s success. “Charlie [Havekost] set the pace, and then I stepped in,” she said. “We also had support from the executive leadership, then-secretary Tommy Thompson at HHS.”

Spitzgo said she doesn’t “know where the next adventure lies.” Now she is in a Senior Executive Service candidate program. “At the end of June, I’ll hit my 30-year mark” for federal service.

“I started my federal career as a child,” she said.

About the Author

Connect with the GCN staff on Twitter @GCNtech.

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