By: Meredith Richardson,
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Knauss Fellow,
Office of the Chief Data Officer at the U.S. Department of Commerce
Federal employees have it hard. Everyone is doing more than one job. There are not enough hours in the day, employees in the organizations, or dollars in the government to accomplish every goal. Enter: Knauss Fellows. Knauss Fellows have the unique opportunity to follow their own interests during their fellowship year, rather than exact roles laid out in a job description. It’s this flexibility that allows fellows to serve as connectors between departments and agencies, identifying areas for improvement and increasing efficiency.
An Engineer/Ecohydrologist Working on Commerce Data Policy
Take myself as a unique use case. I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) -- from corn-locked central Illinois. I never thought that I would be working on data policy, but the Knauss stars aligned to land me in my position with the Chief Data Officer (CDO) of NOAA and the Department of Commerce.
Meredith with her Ph.D. advisor, Praveen Kumar, in a research cornfield on UIUC campus. [Credit: University of Illinois News Bureau, 2017]
In my first few months, I was able to take the time to explore the federal government based on what I was specifically interested in, not only what was offered in my day-to-day duties. I took the opportunity to explore the various committees, working groups, and councils related to my office and attend any meeting I could get in the, albeit virtual, door. This is one of the beauties of the fellowship! Some could say that I was doing this for my own personal gain; however, after going into enough meetings, I started to get a perspective of government that I am realizing is very rare for any employee to have. I sat in meetings with the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Federal CDO Council, National Science and Technology Council Committee of the Environment subcommittees and working groups and discussions with high-level political officials at departments, bureaus, and agencies, as well as technical “in the weeds” individuals working on specific topics and tasks within NOAA. Because I have attended meetings with such a wide range of scope, I have gained a holistic view of the entire organizational structure. This has enabled me to identify A) ways that my host office can utilize outside efforts to improve what we are doing at the department by working with others and learning from their experiences, and B) trends across the federal government as a whole.
Listen, Question, and Learn
At my position in the Office of the CDO at the U.S. Department of Commerce, I am lucky to work with a small but mighty team. Each member performs at least two jobs and is more than happy to do so (mine are Executive Secretariat for the Commerce Data Governance Board and Bureau Liaison to the CDO). In addition to the statutory requirements of the office, our team also connects the bureaus within the department in order to identify areas of synergy and duplication of effort. This enables bureaus to work together and combine common efforts, thereby decreasing taxpayer dollars, in an initiative we call “Commerce helping Commerce”. This idea may seem intuitive for someone working in industry, yet, this is a very novel idea in government.
A fractal, like this image, demonstrates how similar patterns repeat at different levels. (Image from Flickr user Mary Calvo)
True, the government is full of amazing individuals who give their lives to public service. Also true, many times those individuals are performing the duties of more than one role within their organization. From my view, you can think of government as a fractal: at each level, there are similar hierarchies as well as barriers for communication and sharing of data. Each office, program, bureau, department has its own hierarchical structure with its own “rules of communication”, and unfortunately, the way the system is set up, parallel offices do not communicate as frequently as they should. At each level there are silos.
These silos exist because of the funding structure of the federal government, not because of a lack of effort on behalf of the employees. Congress gives “X” dollars to “Y” office for a certain line item of the budget. “Y” office then has to work on that project with that money. However, Congress has an outside view of the executive branch offices and programs due to the laws that are set in place to separate the two branches. Congress must instead rely on the best available information it can get from legislative affairs offices and non-government sources to decide who gets what funding. Further, there are 12 different appropriations subcommittees within each chamber of Congress doling out money to various agencies within the government, many with seemingly overlapping jurisdictions. Since there are different congressmen deciding how to fund NOAA than the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management and EPA, for example, as a body, Congress cannot always identify what programs have duplicate or synergistic efforts. And so the silos go on and on. Who then is responsible for identifying duplicative efforts? How can communication be facilitated across line offices of NOAA? Across departments? Interagency task forces and working groups exist, but many of them are working on different sides of the same coin, attempting to tackle the same problem within a different context that relates to their own group… without knowledge of similar efforts ongoing at the neighboring barn.
Fellows as Connectors
Who can then come in and see how these silos can be broken? Or even identify that the silos exist? Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellows. These positions inherently come with something other positions within the federal government lack: a built-in, pre-made network. There are 68 of us this year, scattered throughout the government working on seemingly different issues/projects. However, we are all interconnected in a way that was unclear until we were knee-deep in our positions.
About two months into my fellowship, I made it a goal to meet with all of the fellows one-on-one. So far I am about 50% of the way there. Through this process, I have discovered how interconnected these positions are and how they are nothing at all like I imagined they would be during Placement Week. Because we have this giant ready-made network, we are able to talk to our counterparts in other programs, line offices, departments and easily identify disconnects or potential areas of collaboration. Knauss Fellows unify the ocean policy community in ways that would be impossible with traditional employees. Fellows are fresh out of grad school with new enthusiasm and new ideas, and they are given the otherwise unheard of opportunity to jump entry-level barriers and head straight to high-level positions, frequently with decision-making influence.
The 2020 Knauss class during Placement Week.
Thanks to my conversations with the other fellows and the level and breadth of inter-agency meetings I have attended, I have identified a specific policy need that is widespread throughout the majority of the federal government. However, because the silos exist (and frequently communication pathways are one-way), individuals are not aware that the issue extends beyond their office/focus-area. If they are aware, they don’t have the time or capacity to even think about how to solve it. This is where fellows can help. If fellows are observant, really listen to the issues and challenges of the people around them, and they are willing to reach out to absolutely anyone to learn more, they can fill a gap. By connecting individuals from various offices/programs with similar issues, they can help each other succeed in their missions through more effective and efficient ways. I believe that I have done just that. I have identified a cross-cutting need throughout government with respect to data policy, and I have engaged with the key players who can start asking the right questions. We will not solve the problem this year but at least we can initiate the conversation, shed some light on the issue, and develop a recommended plan for policy change that will solve it. If I do just that, I will provide an enormous operational win for myself and my host office, and make the government a little more efficient than when I started. If that isn’t a return on investment, I don’t know what is.