Shutdown II looming? Look at the bright side!

Long ago I learned to ignore corporate turmoil and stick to my job. Why poke your head into a line of fire that you can’t affect?

That’s what federal employees need to be doing in the remaining 10 days until the next budget crisis. Easier said than done. Neither Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), nor President Donald Trump really care what you think anyhow. Little good will come from standing up and telling them.

This past weekend, I participated in three gatherings. All were in the private sphere. Seven, 40 and 200 people attended them respectively. This being suburban Washington, attendees included federal employees. And each time I was buttonholed with the question, “Will we have another shutdown?”

This told me the last mini-shutdown felt to many like the tremors before an earthquake. One questioner declared: “This next one will go on for a while!”

Advertisement

What will actually happen next week is anybody’s guess. Better to focus on the positive. A couple of meaningful developments have occurred.

President Trump has nominated someone for the equivalent of the federal CIO spot.  Suzette Kent, lately of Ernst & Young, was not an obvious choice. Many people connected to federal IT expected or hoped for an IT person. I’m sure some were hoping for a Silicon Valley type.

My personal feeling is, it’s time Washington got over its infatuation with Silicon Valley. Government will never have the same tolerance for failure. Unlike the Valley, government has an immense legacy code-base to get past.

Yes, it needs fast wins, innovation and all the rest.

Other areas don’t quite have Silicon Valley’s investment and startup ecosystem. But let’s be real. Even when it has a revolutionary gun in hand, government is often afraid to pull the trigger. Check out my earlier column on the IRS and its quest to retire its assembler code.

Kent’s detailed resume is hard to come by —  but she has worked in financial services and banking at reliable outfits: JPMorgan, Accenture and Ernst & Young.

Her LinkedIn profile mentions business transformation and technology solutions and digital innovations. Those are at least the right words. The White House calls her “an industry leader of large-scale business transformation using technology, for the world’s most complex organizations.” We’ll see.  Innovative people are everywhere.

Kent comes in with a couple of immediate challenges. Chiefly, getting the modernization and cybersecurity strategies humming. And developing detailed guidance for how to use the new modernization revolving funds. In other words, Kent doesn’t need to be the sole innovator. She needs to create conditions for things to happen.

In a totally different domain, the controversy-plagued Environmental Protection Agency appears to have reached a breakthrough agreement on one of its Superfund sites. Those are highly polluted zones for which Congress established a cleanup fund back in 1980. In general, those responsible for pollution in the first place pay for the cleanup. The process came in response to the famous Love Canal episode.

One site on the Superfund list since 1983 is in Butte Hill, Montana. EPA said it has reached an agreement with Atlantic Richfield and local authorities for how to finish the cleanup. Negotiations have gone on for 12 years. Because of a court order, they’ve been secret. A Montana Standard article said the EPA will act as a judge to loosen the gag so locals know what is going on.

Oddly, the EPA press release simply linked to the Montana Standard article. The article described the Butte Hill environs as the nation’s largest Superfund site. But it sounds like progress.

A third thing: Kirsten Gillibrand, a senator from New York, is reportedly bringing the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico to the State of the Union speech tonight.

She wants to remind everyone that the U.S. territory is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria.  And I guess to score political points against President  Trump. Fair enough. The annual speech has long been a totally political fest.

But down where the government operates in reality, several agencies are still actively there. They include the Army Corps of Engineers, with 800 people. Also FEMA, and the Agriculture, Energy and Interior Departments still have people there.

Corps Brig. Gen. Diana Holland said in my interview, her team has enlisted 5,000 contractor people.  Some 1,300 big generators are operating in Puerto Rico until the Corps can rebuild the grid. Some 15,000 homes have received blue tarp roofs until they can get permanent repairs.

Areas remain hard to pass through. Many still lack reliable power. Disaster recoveries are chaotic at times. Puerto Rico has a long way to go. But thousands of hard-working federal employees have toiled for a long time there. They’ve made things measurably better.