Briefing

Just Add Water

Graduate School USA, the 90-year-old institution established by the Agriculture Department before becoming independent, will add to its multipronged mission the challenge of helping revitalize the Southwest Washington waterfront. Along with its longtime focus on public service, the school will expand its offerings to vocational training that will prepare local residents for careers in high-growth industries. "The D.C. community is a much greater focus now, though our bread and butter remains the federal community, a niche that's never going to change," says Graduate School USA Chief of Staff Jim Huske.

Congress severed the professional development and training provider from Agriculture in the 2008 Farm Bill to create a nongovernment entity. Besides offering 800 courses a year to 200,000 students, the nonprofit is bringing to the Wharf area a new education and training center as part of a $2 billion vision that will include offices, retailers, hotels, parks and cultural entities.

-Charles S. Clark

Cream of The Crop

Top civil servants were honored at a black-tie event this spring for helping to save the government more than $36 billion.

The Senior Executives Association celebrated the 66 winners of the annual Presidential Distinguished Rank Awards at the State Department, where Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack praised the federal employees for their service. Honorees receive a monetary award equivalent to 35 percent of their annual basic pay.

The Defense Department, including six winners from the Office of the Secretary, garnered 23 awards, the most of any department. NASA captured the second-largest haul, with seven recipients. Honorees' accomplishments included arguing 80 cases before the Supreme Court on behalf of the United States; serving as lead negotiator for the international agreements for the international space station; managing all equipment that soldiers need on a daily basis (from tents, kitchens and water to portable latrines); and processing nearly 200,000 citizenship applications and naturalizing almost 170,000 people in one year.

-Kellie Lunney

Virtually There

New hires at Fort Sam Houston in Texas can now tour the Army base before they even arrive. And Homeland Security Department employees will soon be able to participate in cybersecurity training that takes them through a whodunit-style mystery where they collect clues about stolen data and interrogate a gallery of possible crooks.

Both projects are hosted by the Agriculture Department as part of its vGov contract to help agencies build a virtual world where workers can conduct meetings, training and collaboration sessions. It's technology the private sector has been using for years, and some agencies have already begun interacting with the public in popular virtual venues like Second Life.

Striding down a virtual street to the Sam Houston bowling alley or tracking a Trojan horse at a DHS command center keeps people more engaged than a standard webinar and helps them retain information, says National Defense University Assistant Dean Paulette Robinson, who is co-leading the Agriculture Department project.

At this point, though, only about 10 percent of government workers have the security systems in place to enter virtual worlds from their desktops, Robinson says.

But she envisions a series of government-built, cloud-hosted and interlinked venues where federal workers from different agencies and different cities can meet and collaborate without even crossing the street.

-Joseph Marks

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