Deputy secretaries cite their proudest accomplishments

Political appointees serving as chief operating officers at five departments named their top accomplishments at a panel hosted by the nonprofit National Academy of Public Administration on Wednesday.

The Obama administration deputy or undersecretaries at the Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy and Veterans Affairs departments are among top political appointees profiled in a new book Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government by consultants Paul R. Lawrence of Ernst & Young LLP and Mark A. Abramson of Leadership Inc.

The appointees’ self-assessments came in the course of discussing challenges and priorities, such as taking advantage of contacts at the White House, motivating career employees in a short timeperiod, cutting through agency silos and implementing agencywide performance management tools.

Rebecca Blank, now acting deputy Commerce secretary, said her proudest achievement is her department’s work in disaster prevention, describing a positive outcome from a 2011 budget battle over funding for a new satellite crucial to weather forecasting.

Kathleen Merrigan, deputy Agriculture secretary, cited her department’s ability to make progress despite a 12 percent cut in discretionary funding during the past two years and an institutional memory depleted by 7,000 retirements. She said her employees still managed to improve nutrition programs, conservation, aid to farmers and food safety.

Anthony Miller, deputy secretary of Education, described his team’s feat of getting 48 states to adopt standards and 21 states to enroll in the Race to the Top grants program to boost K-12 academic standards and reform teacher evaluation.

W. Scott Gould, deputy secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, spoke of progress toward the goal of ending homelessness among veterans by 2015, reporting that his team has reduced the number of cases from 131,000 to 76,000, with 12 percent reduction in the past 12 months. Daniel Poneman, deputy Energy secretary, cited work that “measurably reduced nuclear threats,” including dismantling weapons in the former Soviet Union.

Poneman was asked about his department’s handling of the controversial loan guarantee to now-bankrupt solar panel maker Solyndra, and he said his staff “did not lose a wink of sleep” over the politically controversial incident. He cited Congress’ statutory requirement that the program fund innovative technologies and said an observer looking at Energy’s credit review process compared with that of a corporation would find no difference.

Asked whether chief operating officers get together frequently enough, both he and VA’s Gould said they meet regularly with the President’s Management Council. At those meetings Jeffrey Zients, the federal chief performance officer who this week took over as director of the Office of Management and Budget, provides a “rich agenda” of private-sector influences in such areas as information technology and recruiting.

Though most of the speakers mentioned additional organizational accomplishments, Merrigan recounted one that was “most personally satisfying.” During the recent holidays, she discovered an artificial Christmas tree displayed in the lobby of her building. Noting that the Forest Service is part of USDA, she brought in a real tree.

CORRECTION: A earlier version of this story identified Rebecca Blank by her previous title. She is now acting deputy Commerce secretary.

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