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PSA: “The Buzz and the Thrill”

Part of our Public Service Announcement series, profiling federal employees and their work

By Norman Kelley

The United States knew it had more than a diplomatic problem when two of its embassies were targeted by terrorist bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam made it clear to the State Department that its security apparatus was woefully inadequate. Enemies of the United States, especially Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, were making use of State’s lack of security preparation. Embassy security had been an on-going but neglected concern since 1983, when the US embassy in Beirut was bombed. Beginning with the Clinton Administration, State began a process of revamping America’s diplomatic installations to meet its security challenges.


Jay Hicks

One of the people now at the heart of that program is Jay Hicks, a native of Flint, Michigan who came to government service after many years as a private sector real estate developer. Hicks, Managing Director at the State Department’s Office of Planning and Real Estate (OP&RE) and a member of the Senior Executive Service, sat down recently with Understanding Government at a Dupont Circle coffee shop to talk about his time in public service.

On a dreary, rainy fall morning, before he took off for Madrid, Hicks talked about his work one of the missions of the division of the Department of State’s Overseas Building Operations (OBO), the division of State that oversees OP&RE (located in Rosslyn, Va.).

“With the bombings of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, it was apparent that we were very vulnerable with our embassies overseas,” he said. “We weren’t building many new embassies at the time of those tragic terrorist attacks. In the wake of those bombings, it was apparent to everybody that we needed to do something different, and what they did was set up a program where there was a dramatic infusion of capital and cash into the State Dept. to build new embassies.”

Over the years the Capital Security Construction Program’s budget has grown to a $1.4 billion annual program that’s primarily focused on solving security issues for the United States’ embassies and consulates.

“There are a lot of embassies that are old and not very functional, dilapidated…but the program isn’t designed to improve functionality; it’s designed to improve security,” said Hicks.

$1.4 billion may seem like an inordinate amount of money, but the United States has over three hundred embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions worldwide. As of July 2009, OBO had completed 68 projects, with 29 projects in design and construction, which Hicks described as “robust.”

These projects begin with real estate, Hicks’s specialty. A graduate of Michigan State, with a degree in city planning, Hicks began his career as a city planner in Leesburg, Va. Even though he’s spent most of his career outside of government, and kidded by his co-worker as “The Donald” of his department, Hicks is very passionate about public service and the mission of State.

“I’m privileged to do what I do, and I consider myself blessed to be in this position, and to be able to do the things I think are worthwhile,” said Hicks, who, on an off-day, dressed more like a working class guy than a senior State Department official – brown bomber leather jacket, orange flannel shirt and jeans.

He says one “doesn’t have to go to work for the government to do things in the public’s interest. You can volunteer; you can do countless different things. I was just brought up with the sense of giving back, and feel that this [position] is a way of doing it.”

Hicks feels he hasn’t moved all that far away from the private sector:  “I get the all the buzz, the thrill of private sector negotiation, strategy, deal making, but the beneficiary are the taxpayers, and I do it in the public’s interests, which appeals to me.”

The job has its Londons and Madrids, but it also has many Kabuls and Baghdads – where Hicks may spend up to a week or more. Sometimes a site may require him or a team to visit a place, such as Baghdad, three or four times. In 2003, his first assignment as managing director, was to find a location there and was warned not to return without it.

“It was exciting,” he said, reflecting on his time in one of the world’s hottest spots, where he had to wear protective gear. “It was thrilling, yeah, and dangerous. I had a few bullets whizzing by my head, but I’m proud to have served and done my part to advance diplomatic solutions to the problems our country faces.”

The job in Baghdad was to negotiate a bilateral deal with the new post-Saddam government for former US property which had been expropriated by the previous regime, and then exchange it for new property in order to build a new US embassy in Baghdad. The embassy complex, priced at $700 million dollars, is located in the fabled “Green Zone,” on 104-acre site, and has space for 1,000 employees.

Negotiations, contracts, and the bottom line:  Hicks commented that he likes “bringing those business world techniques, practices and sensibilities to how the government does business.”

Some may scoff at the very idea of how “government does business,” invoking a plodding, big-footed bureaucracy that moves at a dinosaur’s pace. Hicks counters, with due respect to the business world, that “with all the corporate bailouts, I would never hold up the private sector as an example of all things perfect.”

“But I think,” he continues, “when you analyze financially different alternatives in the government, we’re well served by using the same methodologies and thought processes that are used in the private sector.”

The State Department, Hicks points out, is one of the very few agencies of the U.S. government that is allowed to sell excess property and keep the proceeds, thus raising $25 to $35 million yearly. The department also charges other agencies — for example, Agriculture or DOD — for their “worldwide presence” at its embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions. The procedure allows it to cover the cost of its worldwide presence and security concerns in over 300 sites.

“You have to have a plan,” he explained, “which projects to the stakeholders in the department – the overseas diplomats, OMB, Congress and various stakeholders – where we are going to build,” and what the directorate is doing to reduce “vulnerability worldwide.”

As well as planning new construction, OP&RE plans for maintenance of State’s overseas properties. Hicks also administers the Capital Security Construction Program and is involved with buying and selling lands for new construction. Last but not least, he also coordinates the leasing of the State Dept.’s 16,000 worldwide properties, in 260 locations.

Hicks’ portfolio was so large – as both the executive director of OBO and managing director of OP&RE – that State decided on a new organizational structure, and Hicks was asked to concentrate on managing OP&RE.

“I used to work considerably longer hours when the breadth of my responsibilities were a little larger,” he says, adding that now he occasionally even gets “ to take lunch breaks, which I never used to do.”

Despite the narrower portfolio, he still finds himself constantly on the job, whether at home or abroad.

“There’s rarely a day that I’m not doing some work,” he said, thinking about an upcoming trip to Madrid. “Overseas, I really pack the work in. There’s no idle time overseas. Even on the plane, it’s a great opportunity to get work done, otherwise it wouldn’t be done.”

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