In public service, the ‘ants’ tend to prevail

Great civil servants have patience and a long-term view

Editor’s note: While Tom Temin is on vacation this week, please enjoy this column which originally published June 19.

Are you an ant or a grasshopper? As one who tends toward instant gratification, I admire people who are patient with small daily incremental successes in pursuit of a long-term goal. That ant-like approach can be powerful in the context of federal projects.

Two subjects of my annual interviews with Service to America Medal finalists show what I mean.

The first, John Melle, retired earlier this year. He did the intricate legwork leading to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. His title at the time was assistant U.S. Trade Representative for the Western Hemisphere. (His co-award recipient is Maria Pagan, deputy general counsel at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.)

In many ways Melle is as much ambassador as trade negotiator. He sounds State Department-ish. As a career civil servant, he had to run up and down the continent dealing with other government types, trade unions, industrialists and their inevitable phalanxes of lawyers to get consensus on every little thing. It took 14 months.

Melle added, “I didn’t even mention the other U.S. government agencies that are involved. All of them, of course, have big stakes in their sectors of the economy and the programs they run.”

The other “ant” is just a few years into his career. Mark Braza, 32, is an assistant program manager in the Navy’s in-service aircraft carrier office. With an age and title like that, you’d expect him to be in charge of, say, the vegetables supply chain for the ships’ galleys. Heck no. In fact, he’s overseeing the mid-life overhaul of the U.S.S. John C. Stennis. The multi-billion-dollar effort involves new radars and defensive electronics, new crew accommodations and a host of other upgrades and repairs. The carrier will be able to handle the F-35 and a the new MQ-25 unmanned aerial vehicle. (The nuclear refueling is the responsibility of another office.)

Braza emphasized the fact that the ship, while an expensive instrument of national security, is also home to thousands and thousands of sailors over it’s 50-year life cycle.

A big part of the job, Braza said, is pulling together all of the contracting and contractors required. There’s a prime, Newport News Shipbuilding, and its 5,000 line item contract. But the project also requires many subs and the need to meet small business goals.

You thought your last kitchen remodeling took too long. It takes four years to overhaul an aircraft carrier, and Braza says they’re on time. Braza’s Service to America Medals citation states he negotiated a way to trim 160,000 man-hours out of the work by figuring out the right incentives for the contractor.

Like an international trade agreement, a carrier overhaul requires a steady end-state vision while the patience to do a million details correctly day by day.

Many years ago, the legendary editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, remarked of the editing process, “It takes as long as it takes.” Yes, but publications, ship rebuildings and trade agreements have deadlines and budgets. As a grasshopper, I’ve always liked relatively high frequency publishing because you’ve got to finish the work, touch it up, and push it out. Long ago I loved seeing a byline on a newspaper story I’d written hours earlier appear on a still-damp copy that had been printed in the basement.

It takes a special person, though, to shepherd something both complicated and long term, especially when the project involves so many people and organizations. Suzette Kent, the federal CIO, commented the other day that the payback from agencies moving to shared services can run seven to ten years, and that it’s hard to get people excited about and undertaking like that.

The Veterans Affairs and Defense Departments are replacing their electronic health records. The vendor common to them both is Cerner. Julie Stoner, Cerner’s vice president for government services, told me that on the VA side it will have been a 10-year effort before every location is up and running. Let’s hope the agencies have people who can sustain their enthusiasm to see it through.

Unlike dollar savings, a relaunched ship, an acclaimed trade agreement, and a new system are tangible. You can see and touch them. Scores or hundreds of individuals, groups, offices or bureaus can threaten such projects with indifference, objections or incompetence. That’s one reason why it takes special people to see them through.

Melle was not new to this sort of work when he undertook the new trade agreement. He’d been on the staff that worked out the North American Free Trade Agreement during the Clinton administration. I discussed the U.S.S. Gerald Ford, America’s newest carrier, with Braza. It’s launched and undergoing sea trials. I joked that, in 25 years, Braza could still be on the job, and be there to oversee the Ford’s mid-life overhaul. He answered with a laugh, “I very well may, yes.”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

The idea of Father’s Day was conceived more than a century ago by Sonora Dodd of Spokane, Washington. Dodd wanted a special day to honor her father, William Smart, a widowed Civil War veteran who was left to raise his six children on a farm. June 19 was chosen for the first Father’s Day celebration in 1910. Father’s Day has been celebrated annually since 1972 when President Richard Nixon signed the public law that made it permanent.

Source: Census Bureau

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