These 12 Exemplary Feds Led Hurricane Response, Coronavirus Vaccine Research and Much More

Honoring the 2020 Theodore Roosevelt Government Leadership Award winners.

At a time when public servants at the federal level are increasingly under attack, many federal employees are doing stellar, even heroic, work behind the scenes. A group of the best of the best were honored this week at a virtual gala that included the presentation of the second annual Theodore Roosevelt Government Leadership Awards, an initiative of Government Executive Media Group. 

The Leadership Awards, known as the Teddies, launched in 2019 in conjunction with the Government Hall of Fame. The 2020 Teddy winners are an all-star team of 12 exemplary federal employees in the following categories:

  • Defenders: For distinguished achievement in national defense and homeland security
  • Visionaries: For those who have developed promising new approaches to solving government’s biggest challenges
  • Directors: For excellence in managing people, programs and policy implementation
  • Pathfinders: For innovation in bringing advances in information technology to the federal government.
  • Partners: For non-federal sector allies whose support and guidance of government initiatives was key to their success
  • COVID-19 Response, a special 2020 category for outstanding accomplishment in addressing the coronavirus pandemic.

More information about the Teddy Awards and the Government Hall of Fame virtual gala

The 2020 Teddy Award honorees were selected from among hundreds of nominations. They are:


Stephen Lee, Senior Scientist, Army Research Office, Defense Department

Stephen Lee leads a program that over the past 20 years has issued more than 800 Small Business Innovation Research contracts valued at over $500 million, and tens of thousands of academic research grants worth over $4 billion. 

These efforts included the commercialization of a military working dog hearing protection system. Lee recognized that working dogs were unable to respond to commands due to temporary hearing loss in loud noise environments, such as those created by vehicles and helicopters. He designed a program with Zeteo Tech and the University of Cincinnati to create a hearing protection system that has led to commercial products used by many working dog programs, including those of the Defense Department, Customs and Border Protection, and police departments across the country. 

By coming up with innovative research topics and then championing small businesses, Lee has brought many federal agencies together, including DOD’s Special Operations Command, the Defense Health Agency, Army SBIR programs, and the Chemical and Biological Defense Program of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The topics he supported have transitioned innovative work from industry and academia to create sensors, environmentally friendly technologies, cleaning solutions and decontaminants, and technologies for soldier and civilian protection.

Nathan Ainspan, Senior Research Psychologist, Military-Civilian Transition Office, Defense Department

In his Defense Department career, Nathan Ainspan has produced research and policy advancements that have had a profound impact on the lives of military veterans. His work has focused on the transition of members of the military to civilian life. 

Ainspan’s efforts have affected the lives of each of the approximately 200,000 people who exit the military services each year—and their families. For example, he has worked with RAND to produce research on non-technical skills that service members gain from their military service. Ainspan also has created a cross-sector monthly meeting for leaders focused on military psychology, veterans' employment and national policy. 

Ainspan’s contributions to psychology research, practice and administration are woven together by an underlying motivation to engage in service to others and his profession. In 2011, he founded a volunteer effort staffed by industrial-organizational psychologists that provides consultation, continuing education and resources to corporations and human resources professionals regarding hiring and retaining veterans. Ainspan has won several professional awards, including the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense's Above and Beyond Award and the DOD Distinguished Civilian Service Award. 


John Wagner, Former Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security Department

Before his retirement in July 2020, John Wagner spent his career working on efforts to secure and facilitate travel, including developing the Homeland Security Department’s Global Entry program. When Customs and Border Protection received a mandate in 2013 to capture biometrics on foreign travelers when they depart the United States, Wagner took it a step further, designing a path forward that would improve the entire passenger experience.

Specifically, CBP built a facial biometrics matching service that can verify a traveler’s identity not just at departure but at check-in, bag drop and Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. Wagner worked tirelessly to engage with airlines and airports and strengthened CBP's partnership with TSA to highlight the benefits of facial biometrics to facilitate travel. He emphasized the value of working together to create a best-in-class system that is secure, straightforward and efficient while protecting the privacy of travelers.

CBP is leading the way to implement facial biometrics through public-private partnerships with the air travel industry and has processed over 43 million travelers who have used their face to confirm their identity when document checks are required. Travelers can now participate in biometric boarding at select gates at 27 airports and 18 arrival locations in the United States. As with any new technology, there were questions about privacy and how data is managed in the facial biometric process. Wagner addressed those concerns directly, inviting privacy advocates to CBP for several meetings to engage in an open dialogue. 

Dr. Gail K. Berntson, Deputy Chief of Staff, Veterans Affairs Medical Center Memphis, Veterans Affairs Department

In 2014, more than 20% of the 60,000 patients at Veterans Affairs Medical Center Memphis were prescribed an opioid, and 9.5% were on an opioid and a benzodiazepine. In July 2017, only 13% of this population had been prescribed naloxone, a potentially life-saving antidote. By the beginning of fiscal 2019, the Opioid Safety Initiative spearheaded by Dr. Gail Berntson had reduced the percentage of patients on opioids by over 60%, and the percentage on opioids and benzodiazepines by 95%. By January 2019, the percentage prescribed naloxone had nearly doubled.

Berntson showed how the efforts of one individual can make a difference in addressing a pervasive problem. She has worked tirelessly on this project since becoming deputy chief of staff at VAMC Memphis. A longtime member of the facility’s Medication Use Committee, Berntson engaged stakeholders such as medical center leaders, congressional liaison offices and patient advocates. In addition to this work, Berntson has been deeply committed to and involved in the home care of the most at-risk veterans in the 53-county area served by VAMC Memphis. 

In recognition of her efforts on the Opioid Safety Initiative and the naloxone program, Berntson and her team received the 2018 Veterans Health Administration Undersecretary for Health Excellence in Pharmacy Practice Award.


Josue E. Rivera, State Director, Rural Development, Puerto Rico, Agriculture Department

Josue Rivera’s commitment to unselfish service has earned him the enthusiastic support of his colleagues. He has developed close, effective working relationships with the officers and managers of his department and has aggressively advocated on issues important to them and the people of Puerto Rico.

Serving as chairman of the State Food and Agriculture Council, Rivera has committed himself to improving the economy and quality of life in Puerto Rico. Among his many initiatives, he co-organized the first Puerto Rico Rural Lending Investment Summit, and won Puerto Rico's selection as a pilot program for the Single-Family Housing Repair program. He also completed the largest public utility restructuring in Rural Development's portfolio, a $423 million transaction involving the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority.

In 2017, Rivera was responsible for coordinating recovery efforts following the catastrophic destruction of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. He worked directly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Response Coordination Center and National Business Emergency Operations Center to expedite recovery operations, and later helped garner $55 billion in disaster recovery funds for Puerto Rico. He was honored with the Association of University of the Puerto Rico Alumni and Friends Abroad Distinguished Alumni award for his accomplishments.

Priscilla W. Clark, Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer, Housing and Urban Development Department

Before joining the Housing and Urban Development Department, Priscilla W. Clark spent two years leading ReImagine HHS, a transformation effort at the Health and Human Services Department. The mission of the program is to help HHS better serve the American people by advancing innovative solutions, institutionalizing continuous improvement and enhancing strategic collaborations with internal and external partners. 

ReImagine HHS identified six strategic shifts based on input from employees and launched 10 initiatives to carry out their objectives. As transformation management officer, Clark was responsible for both the operations of the new program and the strategy to ensure results. With the support of senior leaders, she stood up a governance structure that included both political and career executive leadership. She provided oversight and direction to other executives and their teams leading the 10 initiatives. And for the first time in the department's history, she secured over $40 million in funds for an enterprise-wide change management effort. 

The ReImagine HHS initiatives are both operational and mission-specific. For example, the acquisitions initiative leverages the enormous buying power of HHS to increase cost savings and reduce inefficiencies, while the clinical innovation initiative helps create a mechanism to promote departmental coordination to shorten the time to find cures. To tie it all together, Clark established a robust performance management program that incorporated key performance indicators and outputs across all program activities and aligned them to HHS’s enterprise risk management practices. 


Kate Zwaard, Digital Strategy Director, Library of Congress

As a leader in the cultural heritage community and digital strategy director for the Library of Congress, Kate Zwaard has been instrumental in expanding the Library's use of technology to encourage deeper exploration and discovery of its collections. One of her signature programs has been LC Labs, the Library's first digital experimentation team. In 2018, LC Labs launched By the People, a project that invites volunteers from around the world to transcribe and review digitized primary source documents through a web application. 

Focusing on user research, analytics, and program needs, Zwaard convened leadership from across the Library to refine the vision. Together, they empowered the team that instituted an open source software codebase for By the People. This foundation allowed her team to implement iterative application upgrades to advance technology at the Library, while creating an outlet for other cultural heritage organizations to find solutions to their crowdsourcing challenges. Over the course of 2019, By the People rocketed past all expectations, registering over 11,500 volunteers who completed more than 37,000 page transcriptions—over 8,000 of which have already been added back into the Library's collections. 

From middle school classrooms to college campuses and homes across the country, By the People has done much more than bring public contributions into cultural history. It has allowed all Americans a pathway to connect with the Library of Congress. Through its moderated transcriptions, By the People enhances access to handwritten and typed documents from which computers aren't able to accurately extract text. As an added bonus, users with visual disabilities now benefit from collections that have greater on-screen readability and screen reader compatibility through By the People transcriptions. The program has earned a permanent home in the Library's Digital Content Management unit where staff have steadily increased the number of volunteers and more than tripled the number of total transcriptions since 2019. 

Misu Tasnim, Executive Director, Digital Service, Health and Human Services Department

Misu Tasnim is leading teams of interdisciplinary experts to launch modern health care technology products. She is moving the government towards interoperability and value-based care through data initiatives, standardization of health information and modernization of health infrastructure. 

One example: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services currently pays about 1.2 billion Medicare claims a year to over 53 million beneficiaries. With roughly 10,000 new beneficiaries enrolling daily, modernizing these systems is critical to ensuring they can support such a fast-growing population. Tasnim is working with CMS and leading the strategy for migrating legacy systems to modern, cloud-based infrastructure based on human-centered design. Not only will this modernization effort furnish CMS with a new payment system, it will reduce maintenance costs and ensure scalability.

Tasnim also has spearheaded a number of projects to empower health care providers and patients with data. This began with Blue Button, a CMS initiative that allowed patients to download or print their health records from Tasnim also facilitated the creation of Data at the Point of Care, a program that gives doctors all the information they need in one place to best treat their patients. More than 160,000 providers have requested access to the program. But perhaps the most important digital initiative Tasnim oversees is the promotion of common standards for health care data. This reduces uncertainty throughout the industry and allows for more collaborative innovation. 


Mark Hogg, Founder and CEO, WaterStep

There are few emergency water treatment systems available to respond to widespread water contamination events. Those on the market are extremely expensive, mounted on semi-tractor trailers, and often produce highly concentrated wastewater that must be safely disposed of. Working with James Goodrich of the Environmental Protection Agency, Mark Hogg of the non-profit organization WaterStep addressed this issue by developing an affordable mobile emergency water treatment system called Water-On-Wheels.

The WOW system can be tailored for specific types  of local water contamination and can be operated on standard electrical power, a dual-fuel generator, a battery, or solar power. It also can produce liquid bleach for sanitation. Following Hurricane Maria in 2017, components of the mobile water treatment system were deployed to each of the 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico. The systems could be delivered in pickup trucks when larger vehicles were unable to pass through debris-choked roads, and they could be run without an operating power grid. Local residents were quickly trained in operating the WOW system.

WOW is a new emergency response tool that first responders such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard can use, well as small communities and critical institutions such as hospitals. The importance of delivering safe drinking water is a concern around the world, but it is of paramount importance to protecting the environment and human health in developing countries and disaster-ravaged areas.

Sherry Hwang, President, Pyramid Systems

After Sherry Hwang started working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1987, she grew to believe the government deserved better information technology consulting services than it was getting. So in 1995, she launched Pyramid Systems. Over the past 25 years, Sherry and her team have delivered successful solutions to HUD, the Homeland Security, Agriculture and Justice departments, the Securities and Exchange Commission and many more federal agencies.

In 2019, Hwang invested $1 million to launch Pyramid Labs, a research and development arm of her company. The lab helps agencies modernize their IT infrastructure at low cost by prototyping emerging solutions. In just six months, the labs team delivered a robotic process automation solution to HUD that notifies agency personnel before property lease contracts expire, so low-income families don't go homeless.

Also in 2019, Hwang embarked on a massive project to modernize the Federal Housing Administration's complex loan endorsement systems. She and her team were asked to move the systems to the cloud using Salesforce and Amazon Web Services. They came up with an architecture that took advantage of stronger capabilities in data analytics, artificial intelligence, scalability, security and availability. During the move, the team streamlined and digitized many business functions, improving HUD operations. After six months, mortgage lenders were submitting supplemental claims online in 17 minutes and receiving payment in days, versus the previous labor-intensive, one-to-four year paper process. Taxpayer savings are estimated at more than $10 million annually.


Kizzmekia Corbett, Research Fellow, National Institutes of Health

When Kizzmekia Corbett began working at the National Institutes of Health in October 2014, she decided to focus her research on coronaviruses. It was an area that was “somewhat unknown and no one really cared about it,” she told the Raleigh News and Observer in June 2020. “That work proved to be fruitful in this moment.”

Indeed it did. Now Corbett is a scientific lead on the coronavirus vaccine program

team at NIH’s Vaccine Research Center, which has shown promising results at virtually unprecedented speed. “We’ve researched coronavirus vaccine development for the last seven years—particularly under my direction, the team has researched this coronavirus development for five years,” Corbett told CNN in April 2020. “And so coming into the onset of this pandemic, we had an idea about what we wanted to do as far as the design of the vaccine.”

Corbett is passionate about her research and outspoken about being a Black woman in science. And her work speaks for itself. The vaccine NIH has developed in cooperation with biotechnology firm Moderna entered Phase 3 efficacy trials in late July 2020.

Jay Brainard, Federal Security Director, Kansas, Transportation Security Administration

After raising the alarm in March 2020 with leaders in his agency and members of Congress, in early June Jay Brainard did what thousands of federal employees have done over the years: Blew the whistle. Specifically, in a complaint filed with the Office of Special Counsel, he alleged mismanagement in the coronavirus response at the Transportation Security Administration that he said put the health and safety of TSA employees and the traveling public at risk.

TSA, Brainard charged, had withheld personal protective equipment from employees, refused to allow local officials to mandate that employees wear masks, and failed to require that agents change gloves frequently. OSC found there was a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” on the part of TSA and ordered the agency to open an investigation.

Then an amazing thing happened: Agency leaders listened. TSA Administrator David Pekoske met with Brainard at the end of June and the agency announced it was updating safety protocols to address some of the issues Brainard had raised. Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project, who advised Brainard, told the Washington Post, “the system responded with lightning speed to the truth about a significant threat. I’ve never seen the truth make a difference so quickly.”