- By Charles S. Clark , Aliya Sternstein , Kellie Lunney , Joseph Marks and Emily Long
- October 1, 2011
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Young executives are taking their passion for public service to the top.
As government grapples with seemingly intractable problems like shrinking budgets, overlapping missions and cumbersome processes from bygone days, there is some good news. Young leaders are stepping up to redefine the way federal agencies work through better technology, information sharing and collaboration.
At age 37, Deputy Undersecretary of Education James Kvaal has set out to prove that government not only can make the grade but perform better than the private sector in running student loan operations. Noha Gaber, 34, has beefed up collaboration across the Environmental Protection Agency, creating a leadership development network for new employees. And 40-year-old Ari Schwartz, once a strong critic of government's online policies, is forging consensus with the private sector as the first-ever federal Internet czar.
The reach of these emerging leaders extends across career fields and beyond U.S. borders. At 34, Erica Navarro, head number cruncher at the U.S. Agency for International Development's Feed the Future program, has found that a career in budgeting can be tied to a vital mission like fighting global hunger. And 32-year-old Katie Dowd, new media director at the State Department, is tapping the power of social networking to help nations respond to disaster and boost their economies. Their inspiring stories show that leading by example doesn't require decades of experience, only wisdom and the commitment to make a difference.
Former activist Ari Schwartz seeks middle ground as the first Internet policy adviser.
By Aliya Sternstein
A couple of years ago, then-privacy activist Ari Schwartz testified before Congress on behalf of the Center for Democracy and Technology, saying that the Obama administration's rules on protecting personal information online were inadequate. Today, speaking as an administration official, his calls for Internet policy change are even louder.
Schwartz, 40, is no longer pulling for civil liberties advocates, but he's not single-mindedly defending the White House either. As the first-ever Internet policy adviser at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Schwartz is trying to forge consensus between both the government and the private sector.
He's the one grilled at those hearings now. At a May hearing, after the administration released a cybersecurity legislative proposal that called for publicly naming network companies that fail to comply with safety standards, some senators complained that identifying insecure networks might create a terrorist roadmap. Others said the government's punishment should be harsher. Schwartz's response: The administration is very willing to work with lawmakers and industry on tweaking the penalties.
"Being in the government, there is more scrutiny, but your voice is heard more as well," he says. The audience that attends the first half of a hearing, when the feds testify, is typically larger than that of the second panel, when the activists air their grievances.
Schwartz already has witnessed the influence of his new perch. During the past year, he helped assemble an online privacy agenda called the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace. It envisions a day when Web surfers can use one credential to navigate through almost any secure site without having to enter personal information.
Industry groups initially criticized the slowness of the planning and some did not want the government steering the project. "We had been talking about it for a long time," Schwartz acknowledges, but "when we got it out, people who I respect in the outside world, people really got what we're trying to do with NSTIC. Now there are people who were very negative, trying to work to make this happen."
He also led the development of the Commerce Department's "Cybersecurity, Innovation and the Internet Economy Green Paper." The report outlines voluntary measures for strengthening the security of Internet businesses that aren't considered vital network operators but still face cyber threats that can harm their customers and their bottom lines.
Schwartz's warning to other young go-getters contemplating a similar jump into the federal workforce: "What I didn't expect is the number of meetings," he says. "When I first came in, there were 10 hours of meetings the first week that were recurring meetings."
Schwartz notes that one provision for one section of the cyber legislative proposal took a day and a half of negotiations-and it didn't even make it into the document.
"But, then again, my job is coordination," he says. "I don't feel like that time was wasted. It's part of the process that we have to go through."
Erica Navarro could not deny her civil service roots, taking on global hunger. By Kellie Lunney
Erica Navarro tried to escape, but ultimately succumbed to her fate. So far, she's not complaining.
The 34-year-old budget director for Feed the Future at the U.S. Agency for International Development already has worked at four federal agencies. She's now a GS-15, poised for the Senior Executive Service in the not-too-distant future. It almost didn't happen though: Navarro hails from a long line of career civil servants in Washington, but initially didn't feel a calling to government service.
"Growing up, everyone worked in government. I tried to get away from it by going to business school," laughs Navarro, who has a master's in business from Yale University and an undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies from Tulane University. The private sector, however, didn't offer the assignments she craved. "It's just not the same, what you get to work on," says the former Peace Corps volunteer who also served as budget director of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent agency that fights global poverty.
So Navarro went back to her familial roots, taking a job in 2005 at the Office of Management and Budget, where her mother once worked as a budget examiner. "I couldn't believe how much autonomy and power" the job afforded, she says. Being at OMB gave her the opportunity to work on a range of policy issues, including housing finance and international economics.
That experience, Navarro says, taught her an important lesson: "Budget is really policy." In other words, those who control the numbers set the agenda. At OMB, program examiners have to possess the data and analytics to justify their work, she says, so constant preparation is crucial. The agency is an excellent training ground for future government leaders, Navarro and others attest.
"The thing that works for me is that I don't need to wait for somebody. If there's an issue, I put my recommendations out there; I don't have to wait for instruction," she says. "And I think it helped at OMB, and it's helped me here at USAID."
As head number cruncher for the Feed the Future program, Navarro manages a multibillion-dollar budget for the U.S. global hunger and food security initiative. "This was the dream job that I wanted," she says of the gig she left OMB to pursue in January.
People sometimes knock number crunchers for their rudimentary social skills, but Navarro is that rare combination of someone who can whip up financial forecasting models and pore over budget scoring methodology while also managing seven employees and navigating the tricky terrain of policy and politics. Part of her job is making sure Capitol Hill understands the USAID initiative and articulating the impact of spending cuts both internally and externally. Navarro credits her experience in the Peace Corps for an extra boost of self-confidence. "I am quite extroverted, but that brought me out of my shell even more," she says of her time as a small business adviser in Nicaragua.
"What I like about the government is . . . if you are good, you can progress very quickly," Navarro says. For the foreseeable future, she wants to stay in government. "I can see myself really interested in working on the management side of USAID."
Noha Gaber builds bridges across EPA to coordinate programs and develop young leaders.
By Emily Long
Noha Gaber is well-versed in fostering communication and collaboration. As a special assistant in the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of the Administrator, she works day in and day out to facilitate information sharing across programs, as well as among EPA's youngest workers.
While leading a team at the agency's Council for Regulatory and Environmental Modeling, Gaber saw a need for better coordination among program offices and locations. She left the council to launch an effort to develop tools that allow staff to work in virtual teams. It's an exciting opportunity to partner with people from other divisions to develop tools that are much needed for intra-agency collaboration, she says.
Gaber's passion for team building extends beyond her day job as well. Shortly after joining EPA in September 2005, she took an interest in giving newer employees the opportunity to form professional relationships independent of traditional training and development programs. She founded the Emerging Leaders Network, which began as a few dozen young employees. Five years later, the organization is an official employee group with more than 1,000 members nationwide.
According to Gaber, ELN is driven by employees rather than an agency- developed leadership program. Members invite EPA leaders to speak on topics ranging from the agency's role in government to the federal budget process. The group also hosts social events, collaborates with human resources staff on the new-hire orientation process and offers young employees opportunities to "steward" the organization's growth, she says.
A key component of ELN is "building bridges across EPA's offices," Gaber says. "You don't necessarily do that in a professional development seminar. You might meet somebody and exchange names, but we also wanted to have social activities that would help create those bonds and bring people together. I got to know the work others were doing and saw the relevance to my job."
Gaber, 34, has taken her calling public through leadership programs at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Young Government Leaders, a professional association for up-and-coming feds. She also works with college students to bust myths about federal careers. Ultimately, government offers an opportunity to take a leading role in developing policies and programs that have a huge impact, she says.
"Helping to improve innovation and collaboration in the agency is something that really excites me," says Gaber. "It's something I've tapped into and found within myself, and I've been given the opportunity to develop."
James Kvaal re-ups in the higher education crusade
By Charles S. Clark
A return to the Education Department's loftiest echelons made James Kvaal appreciate some similarities there under the Obama and the Clinton administrations. "We've had great leaders in [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan and [Clinton appointee] Richard Riley, who share the same humility, encourage a collegial staff environment and focus on the impact of policies on individual students," Kvaal says. "I'm grateful to be here for a second time."
As deputy undersecretary of Education, Kvaal inherited responsibility for the new direct federal role in student loans, a rare government assumption of what had been a lucrative private sector service. The transfer was mandated by a controversial amendment to the landmark 2010 health care reform law.
Much credit for the program's "smooth transition," he is careful to say, goes to Education's former chief operating officer Bill Taggart, who led the effort. "Some were saying government wasn't capable of expanding the program so quickly. It is now one of the largest financial institutions in the country," Kvaal says. "Many of the best from the private companies are now our contractors."
Kvaal, a youthful 37, boasts a resume ranging from politics to policy. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he went from the Clinton Education Department to working for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and then for Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., on his 2008 presidential bid before moving to the Center for American Progress and on to the White House National Economic Council.
Though he's conversant in health care and tax policy, Kvaal made his reputation with a paper that exposed exploitation in the student loan system. He co-authored the paper with former Education deputy undersecretary Robert Shireman, a longtime advocate of government lending.
For Kvaal, steering policy and implementing it have been markedly different. "On a campaign the task is to help the boss articulate a vision, working off a broad canvas," he says. "At an agency, there is a greater level of detail, and it's rewarding to see how often a small decision matters in the lives of people."
The example he gives is the simplification of the department's unwieldy Free Application for Federal Student Aid. "There were 150 questions, most of which were not relevant to any one student," Kvaal says. "We now get millions fewer pieces of data every year, which was commonsensical."
Kvaal says his biggest challenge was the June 2011 gainful employment regulation, which requires for-profit colleges seeking eligibility for federal aid to track how well their graduates do in job searches. "A lot of for-profits do an excellent job, but lots of them leave students with large debts and poor employment prospects," he says.
His next goal is to focus on college completion rates. "As a nation we've invested a lot in four-year colleges and community colleges, but we have not done as good a job helping those who start at these schools get across the finish line," Kvaal says.
As State's new media director, Katie Dowd empowers global partners with technology.
By Joseph Marks
An hour after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, Katie Dowd was on the phone with State Department attorneys figuring out how the agency could use its international megaphone to gather donations for the devastated island.
The result-a text messaging-based donation campaign developed in partnership with the International Red Cross-pulled in more than $5 million during its first 24 hours of operation.
When President Obama made his pitch for cross-cultural understanding in Cairo in 2009, Dowd was part of a public diplomacy team that signed up thousands of mobile users across the Muslim world to receive live text updates from the speech in more than a dozen languages. From Dowd's perch as new media director at the State Department, she's played a role in nearly every tech-based initiative, from a competition to create mobile apps to aid African development to a series of two-day TechCamps that bring together State Department and private sector instructors with civil society activists abroad who are looking for a technical boost.
The winner of the Apps for Africa competition, iCow, helps African farmers better track their cows' fertile periods to help produce healthier calves that yield more milk and better meat.
Tech Camps in South America, Eastern Europe and South Asia have spawned numerous innovations, Dowd says. During a camp in Vilnus, Lithuania, for instance, State workers paired Leonid Grabov from the Ukrainian Union of People with Disabilities with a U.S.-based communications technology entrepreneur who's helping him map all handicapped-accessible buildings in his country.
During a Jakarta-based Tech Camp, State workers helped set up an instant messaging system so Save the Children staff spread across the dozens of Indonesian islands could rapidly communicate during natural disasters and other emergencies.
"We want people to think of connection technology as not just a microphone but as a tool that's going to solve a problem," Dowd says.
"We're not trying to say, 'we understand how to fix your problem' as we practice diplomacy around the world, but we want to help enable you to find a local solution . . . Thinking about who are the right technologists to fill those needs is where a lot of the strength comes from in my office," she adds. It's 'What's the right app for that? What's the right technology that will solve that problem?' "
Dowd, 32, began her tech career on the political side, working for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at a time when some candidates didn't even have websites, and she helped develop one of the first Democratic Party blogs.
Those years taught her not only that communications technology will change at a rapid pace, she says, but that the technology will always be a means to a larger end, not an end in itself. "Civil society, at some point, won't need the type of training they need now," she says. "I don't know what they'll need in five years, but I hope we're able to figure out where we can play a role. Right now, we're offering value in bringing these two groups-civil society and technology advisers-together."
Editor's Note: Soon after Government Executive went to press, Deputy Education Undersecretary James Kvaal announced that he was leaving his post to work on President Obama's reelection campaign in Chicago.