Brubaker's new focus is research
DOT's funding decisions will help shape the future civilian transportation infrastructure
Paul Brubaker keeps a careful tally of how many days remain for the Bush administration from his office in the sprawling new Transportation Department headquarters in southeast Washington.
It’s not that Brubaker can’t wait until the administration leaves office in January 2009. Brubaker’s counting the days because he wants to track precisely how much time he has to accomplish his agenda as the new administrator for DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA).
“The trick is how much high-value activity we can squeeze out of each one of those days,” Brubaker said. President Bush nominated Brubaker for the post in June, and in August, he was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in.
By capitalizing on his opportunities, Brubaker has enjoyed professional success as a corporate chief executive officer, the Defense Department’s deputy chief information officer and as a staff member of former Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine). On the Hill, he was a key architect of the Clinger-Cohen Act, the groundbreaking 1996 legislation that still guides federal information technology managers.
Those experiences gave Brubaker a heightened understanding of how industry and government work, said fellow native Ohioan Mark Forman, a former administrator of the Office of E-Government and Information Technology. Forman and Brubaker worked together on management and budget reform issues while they were aides to Republican senators in the 1990s.
Leading RITA presents a unique set of challenges for Brubaker. Although it’s not well-known, RITA is responsible for coordinating DOT’s $1 billion budget for research and development. Its funding decisions will shape the nation’s civilian transportation infrastructure for years.
At a time when U.S. airports face record delays, highways grow more congested, and concerns about energy independence and climate change are major news, RITA’s investment decisions are increasingly important.
“People sitting in traffic — it’s a waste of time, they are wasting fuel, and cargo is not moving as quickly and as efficiently as it should be,” Brubaker said. “The logistics and supply chain is becoming adversely affected.
The world is going to look very, very different in 2025 than it does right now” if changes aren’t made.
Brubaker said the government should facilitate changes that will shape the future rather than invent or impose them. He also said widespread criticism of the Bush administration for not doing enough on energy is unfair, citing Bush’s mention of the United States’ addiction to oil in a State of the Union address as a major positive step for a president with roots in Texas’ oil country.
In short, Brubaker said he believes in the power of the free market. “People are willing to pay for goods and potentially services that will allow them to spend less time sitting in traffic, waste less fuel and get goods and people to their locations faster,” he said.
Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, when steel-making towns were hemorrhaging jobs, Brubaker got his first lessons in management.
“I can remember going to the neighbor’s house for lunch and eating grilled cheese sandwiches made with government cheese,” he said. “Mediocre management and lack of foresight crippled an entire city — it’s why I find mediocre management intolerable.”
DOT researchers, like Detroit’s automakers, make decisions whose effects are not felt for three, five or even 10 years down the road. Bad decisions made by DOT could have disastrous results, as they did in Detroit.
For inspiration, Brubaker turns to his political idol, Winston Churchill. His wife, Carolyn, shares Brubaker’s passion for the former British prime minister, and when confronted with a tough decision, they often find t emselves asking, “What would Winston do?” Brubaker said one of his earliest management lessons was not about the value of a stiff upper lip but about the importance of compassion and understanding in the workplace.
As a young man, Brubaker worked for a funeral home, and his duties included picking up bodies, greeting mourners and driving a hearse. Two days after the parlor got a brand-new, expensive hearse, Brubaker got into an accident and wrecked the vehicle.
“I felt terrible, and I offered to pay but [his boss] wouldn’t hear of it — that was a great lesson in management,” Brubaker said. He said the incident taught him that “mistakes and accidents can happen and understanding can build a lot of loyalty and goodwill.”
For many in Washington’s IT community, Brubaker is a valued people person, said Olga Grkavac, the executive vice president for the public sector at the IT Association of America, a Washington-based trade association to which one of Brubaker’s former companies belonged. Brubaker’s associates say his long involvement in Washington’s government and industry IT community has equipped him with the management experience and acumen needed to run RITA.
“I think federal agencies sometimes have a tendency to go a little insular and don’t look outside to where some transformational innovation is happening,” Brubaker said. “Having been on both sides of it, I’ve seen a lot of things.”
Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.