TOPIC: Public Service Profiles

Public Service Announcement: Engineering America’s Bioterrorism Defense

Another in Understanding Government’s “Public Service Announcement” series profiling the careers and challenges of notable government employees

By Norman Kelley

Einstein once remarked that it is more important to have an imagination than knowledge. In the case of Markham K. Smith, now a program manager with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), one led to the other.

As a child, Smith’s imagination was spurred by his mother’s admonishment not to lift the lid of the pot that was cooking rice, his favorite food.

“She would always say, “Don’t lift the lid off the pot! Do not touch the pot!’” he remembers.

Intrigued, Markham wondered why he could not lift the cover to see inside. “So, as a little kid I had the idea that I was going to invent see-through cookware so I could see what going on in that pot while that rice was cooking.”

Little did he know that his mother’s command was actually stirring the pot of his imagination, leading him years later to work for the Defense Dept., managing programs devised to thwart chemical or biological Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Working at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, Smith is one of the people protecting America’s armed service members from chemical and biological weapons, a job that could have important implications if the U.S. faces a terrorist or military attack.

DTRA was organized in 1998 as part of the U.S. Strategic Command to help face the threat of weapons of mass destruction. The agency’s brief includes detecting, stopping, and providing protection in the event of chemical and biological attacks on American military forces or the US public at large. DTRA’s mission is to think through possible threat scenarios and devise ways to neutralize them.

“We are the science and technology arm of the Chemical and Biological Defense program,” explains Smith. (more…)

A Soldier’s Exit Interview

Another in Understanding Government’s “Public Service Announcement” series profiling the careers and challenges of notable government employees

By Norman Kelley

The United States Army is one of largest organizational components of the federal government, and even older than the Republic itself and its Constitution, which it is pledged to protect and defend. The Army joins the Navy, Marines and the Air Force to make up the U.S. Armed Forces, headquartered in the iconic Pentagon.

The Army has often been seen as the most democratic of the armed services – a melting-pot of sorts, bringing in people from different walks of life and training them to work as a team for the common defense of the nation.

Lt. Col. Jennifer Sirois

With the end of the military draft in 1972, the Army maintained this reputation, but its makeup changed most markedly with the decision, in 1978, to allow women to join this all-volunteer force, integrating female soldiers into all services (except combat units).  So the untold story of the contemporary modern army is the inclusion of another pool of talent: women. Women now serve in 91 percent of all Army occupations and make up 14 percent of the active Army (see also WITA) and it is already hard to imagine the U.S. Army without a strong female contingent.

The Making of an Officer

No better example of this is Lt. Col. Jennifer Sirois, U.S. Army Reserve, who because of a mandatory Congressional policy, called “up or out” by Army officers, will be required to leave the service since she hasn’t moved up in rank in the proscribed time. Despite that, Sirois treasures her time in the Army and the privilege to serve her country. Her career has been a dramatic illustration of what a woman can do in her nation’s defense. (more…)

PSA: Doing Her Part by Being Energy Smart

Another in Understanding Government’s “Public Service Announcement” series profiling the careers and challenges of notable government employees

By Norman Kelley

Quick! What agency of the federal government, other than the Defense Dept., has over 200,000 vehicles and is a major consumer of energy resources? Still don’t have a clue? Hint: it helped you enjoy your holiday by delivering cards and gifts during the past few weeks, and has been considered the most trusted government agency in an age of anti-government suspicion.

Yes, it is the United States Postal Service (USPS), one of the earliest public agencies established by the government, and one of the very few to be explicitly authorized by the U.S. Constitution. Unlike most government agencies, it does not derive its budget from taxation and has been financially self-sufficient since the 1970s, when it was reorganized from the Post Office Department, a cabinet-level agency, into the United States Postal service, one of the sixty-five independent agencies or corporations and the only agency to survive solely on its own revenues.

With 656,000 workers, the USPS is the second-largest U.S. civilian employer after Wal-Mart. It has a large fleet of vehicles – over 200,000 – consuming an estimated fuel budget of $2.4 billion.

Carolyn Cole

Carolyn Cole

An agency with this much property faces heavy costs for energy.  Helping to make sure that the USPS reduces its energy consumption, along with its carbon footprint, is Carolyn C. Cole, manager of the Postal Service’s Energy Initiatives group. A Washingtonian born and bred, Cole, who reports to Sam Pulcrano, the USPS’s vice president for sustainability, defines her job as “validating and quantifying” her agency’s energy consumption.

“You can’t measure what you can’t manage,” she told Understanding Government. “I develop strategies to reduce our energy consumption.” (more…)

PSA: Inside the Agency, Outside the Box at FDIC

Another in Understanding Government’s series “Public Service Announcement” profiling the careers and challenges of notable government employees

By Norman Kelley

At the epicenter of last year’s economic meltdown, along with the disappearance of major financial firms, was the collapse of IndyMac Federal Bank, a California-based institution that found itself overwhelmed with distressed mortgages. A result of the nation’s toxic housing bubble (and an at-sleep-at-the-wheel regulatory infrastructure), IndyMac was emblematic of the country’s national mortgage foreclosure crisis.  FDIC economist Clare Rowley was in the eye of Indy Mac’s particular hurricane, trying to rectify that bank’s troubled assets and find ways to save homeowners with IndyMac mortgages from foreclosure.

Clare Rowley with thanks to Washington Post-Newsweek

Clare Rowley

In July 2008, along with other FDIC colleagues, Rowley was dispatched to Pasadena, California, site of IndyMac’s home office. There she helped implement a mortgage modification program that allowed qualified but struggling mortgage holders to stay in their homes. The FDIC’s modification program, which some called a “Model in a Box,” consisted of three basic parts: lowering interest rates, extending  loan terms, and principal forbearance.  The model worked:  by the spring of 2009, 88 % of modified loans were still in force.

When the new Obama administration began tackling the mortgage crisis in mid-2009, (more…)

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.” (more…)

PSA: Carl Fillichio on “The Best Gig You Can Have”

Part of Understanding Government’s new Public Service Announcement series featuring federal employees and profiles of what they do

By Norman Kelley

You would expect a certain amount of spin from an interview with a Labor Department public affairs official about his work. However, Carl Fillichio truly likes what he does, so his aim is true.

Preferring to call his recent installment at the U. S. Dept. of Labor a “second go at the rodeo,” Carl Fillichio, Senior Adviser to the Secretary of Labor for Public Affairs and Communications, is ebullient about his work and the mission of getting the department’s message out.

“The way I look at communications, it’s not just issuing press releases, or doing press conferences or doing a newsletter, it is events and speaking engagements, and all sorts of opportunities to get our message out. I have my finger in all that type of stuff.”

Previously a Clinton appointee who served under Labor secretaries Robert Reich and Alexis Hermann, Fillichio engages in the full panoply of media for the department. “It’s the best gig you can have, public service.” (more…)