Field surveys landscape as chief
- By Matthew Weigelt
- Sep 16, 2008
Several years after an adventurous ski trip, Lesley Field still wonders which one of her friends led them to the Mer de Glace (“Sea of Ice”), a glacier in the French Alps at an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet, without a map or a guide.
“I don’t think I fully realized what we’d done until we got to the bottom,” said Field, who comes from a family of daring skiers. “But honestly, it was probably the best skiing experience I’ve ever had.”
The Sea of Ice is nearly 700 feet deep and more than 4 miles long. “It was wide open,” she said.
In her first interview since she took over as acting administrator at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, Field used skiing metaphors to describe her role.
While skiing, “you can see the topography, you can see the people, you can see where you’re going,” she said. “You see very far out into the future.”
Field has recently had to refocus her long-range view of procurement policy. In mid-July, she was studying the acquisition workforce and strategic sourcing as one of several OFPP policy analysts. Little more than a month later, she was whisked to the top of the governmentwide policy office to replace Deputy Administrator Robert Burton, who retired in July. When Administrator Paul Denett left Sept. 2, Field was appointed to the acting role.
She had arrived at OFPP on assignment from the Transportation Department in 2000. Kenneth Oscar, the office’s acting administrator at the time, said Field arrived with enthusiasm and a desire to see the big picture.
To help frame that picture, Field has dealt with federal procurement from several angles. She began her career with a summer internship at the National Academy of Sciences, where she worked in its contracting and grants office. In 1990, she entered a yearlong internship at DOT. Her managers noticed the procurement experience on her résumé and guided her toward acquisition. Listen to Field discuss the acquisition field as a career
Field worked at DOT for 10 years, rising from a contract specialist to a contracting officer to a management analyst to a procurement policy analyst. She also took assignments at the Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard before landing at OFPP.
Field has worked in acquisition for 18 years. From the time she was an intern, she enjoyed seeing how acquisitions she was involved in led to real benefits for agencies, she said. DOT officials allowed her and other interns to see the results of their work, so after she worked on a contract for sign-language interpreters, she was able to watch those interpreters help people in need. She has long been an advocate for requiring agencies to buy information technology that is accessible for people with disabilities.
And while on detail at FAA, she visited an air traffic control center in Leesburg, Va., and listened to controllers and pilots talk as they guided aircraft from one sector to another.
“I don’t think I ever realized there’s a giant highway” in the sky, she said.
Through those experiences, she began to understand the connection between the papers she was signing as a contracting officer and the daily work of agencies, Field said.
“It made all the difference in the world in someone’s ability to do their job,” she said.
Based on her experiences in taking temporary assignments at other agencies, Field said she is convinced that such rotations are important to keeping the acquisition workforce engaged. People can grow tired of a job, and rotating employees among agencies can keep them motivated, she said.
“We are in a very good position to offer that where we can,” she said. “Retention becomes just as important as recruitment and development.”Listen to Field discuss job rotations.
“She’s passionate about improving the acquisition workforce,” said Burton, who’s now a partner at the law firm Venable Baetjer and Howard.
Because of her varied assignments, Field was able to develop in-depth knowledge of how departments run their operations and incorporate that knowledge into governmentwide policy.
“When I got here, I realized you can really take the operational experience and really start to discover why the policy role is so interesting,” she said.
OFPP’s long-range view of procurement requires its analysts to connect the dots between agencies, considering what each of them does and how. OFPP finds best practices wherever they might be and spreads the word about them throughout agencies.
“We have a very unique position here in the world,” she said.
OFPP also has to deal with competing interests and agendas, Burton said. The administrator has to interact effectively with numerous groups that have their own priorities, including Congress and industry advocacy organizations.
“The art of negotiation becomes essential in that position,” he said.
Field said she recognizes those difficulties and likens them to skiing, where some terrain is easier to cross than other stretches. But the skier must traverse it all to reach the destination.
Oscar and Burton agreed that Field has a way with people that will ultimately help her as OFPP’s acting and deputy administrator.
Oscar has seen Field’s ability to draw people with contradictory views and ideas into a unified group. “She was able to get things done,” he said.
She needs to use that ingenuity to her advantage, he added. To leave her mark on OFPP, she must push forward her agenda, goals and objectives, and not merely fill the position of acting administrator, Oscar said.
“She’s got to act like she’s ‘it,’ go as if she’s the administrator,” he said. Even in an acting capacity, Field could be in charge for as long as a year.
Burton agreed, saying Field must be aggressive in her leadership. He was OFPP’s acting administrator twice and said the office deals with nonpartisan issues, so having the political backing of the presidential administration is less important than it is for other agency leaders.
Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.