Rising stars: Young feds bring innovation to agencies

Stodgy, dull, unimaginative — those are the tired knocks against the government and its employees. But the government is not what it used to be.

A new era has ushered in a new breed of public servants who are changing processes, overhauling byzantine systems and transforming the old stereotypes about the government workplace.

For these up-and-coming feds, innovation is not just a cheap buzzword but an everyday philosophy for tackling and overcoming the challenges of public service. And those challenges aren’t few: With increasingly shrinking budgets, they know what it’s like to do a lot more with a lot less. Along the way, they have made a discovery: Less is not bore.

Here, five feds share the lessons they have learned while making their first marks in government IT. Other up-and-comers — and their more seasoned managers — can learn much from this new generation of public servants.

Lesson 1: Take calculated risks

As a former newspaper reporter in York, Pa., Jessica Milcetich is no stranger to educating the public. But when she joined the General Services Administration’s Federal Citizen Information Center as a social media strategist, she got a taste of what it was to reach a much wider audience and really make an impact.

“Jessica had an audacious plan that she wanted to serve the whole country rather than York, Pa.,” joked Bev Godwin, Milcetich's manager and the center's director. “She really demonstrates that rare combination of someone who’s a forward-thinking IT professional as well as a very gifted writer.”

Milcetich’s energy and her passion for using the latest technology to serve the public aligned perfectly with GSA’s innovative culture, Godwin added.

During Milcetich’s three years at GSA — a time she describes as exhilarating — she put the center’s citizen outreach efforts into overdrive. Armed with the center’s mission to educate the public by sharing government information via all forms of technology, Milcetich spearheaded GSA’s effort to use Scribd to make a large number of health publications easily available online. She also made GSA something of a social media pioneer when she helped it become the first federal agency to use the blogging platform Tumblr.

“Here at GSA, it’s OK to take a calculated risk and try something as a pilot program and see how it works,” Milcetich said. “That’s what we did with Scribd. If it flopped, we’d pull the plug. And it ended up not being a failure.”

Being fearless and bold can help a young fed get ahead, Milcetich added.

“Don’t be afraid to take chances, and don’t be afraid to voice your opinions on different projects where you have expertise,” she said. “And never turn down a project or opportunity. You never know where it might lead you in the future.”

Lesson 2: Find strength in numbers

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University and a master’s in information resources and library science from the University of Arizona, Jessica Hernandez sought professional opportunities that would offer versatility and excitement. She found both in the public sector.

“There are a lot of very exciting career paths in government for people with my academic preparation and skill sets,” she said. “A lot of that work is happening in libraries, but a lot of it is also happening in different types of information environments.”

As Hernandez settled into her role at the Food and Drug Administration's Biosciences Library, she saw a need for a community of librarians in government. In January 2010, she helped form the NewFeds Working Group, which today is 100 people strong and seeks to share information about federal service and the work that librarians do.

Hernandez has taken to heart the old adage that there is strength in numbers. Her advice is to look for opportunities to collaborate and consult with others in your field, then bring that knowledge back to your organization to help it improve.

“I’ve also found a place to build relationships and create a sense of community in my workplace by [involving] mentors and what I call partners in crime — other people willing to collaborate and be involved in community projects,” she said.

For government managers, good leadership is about developing talent and not just managing it, Hernandez said.

“The best supervisor I ever had, Margaret Guerrero, was insightful enough to have a plan for developing each of her new team members,” Hernandez said. “This plan aligned with the greater goals of the organization and created a positive and productive work environment where everyone contributed and felt valued. This is the type of manager I hope to become.”

Investment in meritorious employees is an investment in the future of your agency, Hernandez added.

She is close to finishing a graduate degree in educational technology and said she hopes to combine her interests in health and technology. But with all the possibilities available, it will be hard to pick just one, she added.

When asked if the world is her oyster, she laughed and said, “Exactly!”

Lesson 3: Make room for agility

When Veda Sims joined the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board in December 2009 as chief information security officer, she arrived at an agency in its infancy. There were no policies or security programs in place, and Sims soon realized that her biggest challenge could be boiled down to one specific obstacle: Where do you start when nothing exists?

“I came here excited that I had this opportunity…[and] thinking, ‘Yes, I’m going to set up this security program,’” Sims said. “Then reality set in, with having to really understand the depths of what had to occur [within the organization] and the different challenges you have to provide solutions for.”

Sims’ first task was to identify and unify the board's existing data. She conducted security risk assessments to identify threats and challenges, and then set up a records management system, an information assurance program and an information security awareness program.

“Even though it’s a federal agency, the culture is very entrepreneurial,” she said. “Everyone’s ideas and past experiences are brought to the table. And you have to think of new ways of doing things, not just the traditional way.”

Finding novel solutions to complex problems requires a nimble mindset, Sims added.

“Even if there’s a common methodology, you have to understand how to take that methodology and apply it within the environment that you’re working in,” she said. “Even though we’re a federal agency, we have a very unique mission — a pretty historic mission — and things are done very fast. You have to be very agile, but at the same time, you have to be compliant with various requirements.”

Lesson 4: Follow your passion

He calls it the most humbling mission one could have: to serve as the first CIO at Arlington National Cemetery. Army Maj. Nicholas Miller was brought in to establish an oversight group to help fix the problems at the nation’s most hallowed burial ground in the wake of an Army inspector general’s report that highlighted the cemetery’s mismanaged records and burial mix-ups.

In only a year, Miller has helped usher the organization into the Digital Age by integrating information assurance policies, revamping processes and implementing a badly needed IT infrastructure.

“What I’m most proud of is that I’m setting the [technology] framework to allow us to reach out and touch our stakeholders of the Arlington National Cemetery — the families of the veterans who are being laid to rest here,” Miller said.

He added that many people don't think of cemeteries as technologically advanced, and indeed, when he left the Army CIO's office to join the Arlington National Cemetery staff, some of his colleagues asked what his new position would entail.

“The longer I was here, I realized that technology plays a huge role in operations across a really large and broad spectrum of missions,” Miller said. “I often think of loved ones, grandkids, who can’t visit the cemetery.… Because of a [new project], we’ll be able to reach out and touch them in ways that we haven’t done before, ways that are relevant to them because of technology.”

Miller cites discipline, respect and structure — traits he cultivated in the Army — as keys to his success. He said those characteristics would serve any government employee well. Likewise, when asked what would help someone have a successful career in government, he said: “Discipline, work ethic, and really utilizing the requirements you’ve been given and applying innovative solutions to them.”

But, ultimately, he said, knowing what makes you tick is crucial for bringing out your best performance.

“The government has an infinite number of areas where you can make an impact, so find one you’re passionate about,” he said. “Arlington holds a special place for me.”

Lesson 5: Go beyond your comfort zone

Although most people stay safely within their comfort zones, Paul Swider constantly pushes himself and his agency. When he and the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy were lining up speakers for the [email protected] quarterly networking conferences, they deliberately picked topics they weren’t familiar with.

“The whole idea is to get a little bit ahead of where we’re already comfortable and reach into what we think will be the future for technology applications for the State Department and, to some extent, the government as a whole,” said Swider, a foreign service officer. He said his task is to bridge the gap between hard-core technologists and end users.

Swider said that in the government today, there is a greater acceptance of the new and different, as evidenced by the latest generation of public servants. The State Department, for one, is going through a demographic shift, he said, which puts it on the cusp of having a newer, more adaptable generation coming into positions of responsibility.

“Now there are a lot more eager people who say, ‘We’ve never done that before, but so what? Let’s give it a shot,’” Swider said.

Although stereotypes persist of stolid bureaucratic paper pushers, Swider said people need to change their perception of the federal government.

“Some people think, ‘Work for the government? That’s a dead end. I can’t do anything there,’” he said.

But the challenges government managers face are not much different from those in the private sector. Both sides deal with limitations of money, time and equipment, Swider said. The resourceful government manager, like the clever entrepreneur, will find ways to make things happen in spite of the constraints.

“We have a little bit of time, we have a little bit of money, [but] we don’t have the latitude that you might have in the private sector,” Swider said. “That’s just another barrier against which the creative mind can work.”

Read more about up-and-coming feds in the 2011 Rising Star issue.


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