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Alumni Q&A: As a public servant, how do you measure success?

periodiCALS, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 2016

Kathleen Miller ‘82

Kathleen Miller
“Public service happens in a sphere that is steeped in history and culture, and it may not be easy for new ideas to get acted upon. So you not only need ideas but also the persistence to see them through and solid logic to back them up.”

Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff (G-3/5/7) with the U.S. Army at the Pentagon
To stay on track, I regularly ask myself three critical questions. First, did I make something better today? Public service really is about creating better tomorrows, so I personally need to make something better each day on the job. Second, am I setting the stage for better government in the future? When you consider the kinds of challenges that lie ahead for our government—the Army is at its lowest manpower level since World War II and new dangers are arising in the global context every day—one thing that is crucial is increasing the aptitude and ability of current and future public servants in participating in national service. I personally invest myself in that. Third, am I doing my part to ensure the security of the nation and its citizens in the future? That’s a thread that comes through every day, from the small ways, such as coaching an employee through a particularly difficult project, to the big picture of how we can better support our soldiers in environments that are far from permissive. Public service happens in a sphere that is steeped in history and culture, and it may not be easy for new ideas to get acted upon. So you not only need ideas but also the persistence to see them through and solid logic to back them up.

Svante Myrick ’09

Svante Myrick
“You will not be smart enough for the situation, ever. Just about every day I find myself in over my head, and I really have to trust the people around me. You need some debate and to learn from them as quickly as you can and take it from there.”

Mayor of Ithaca
Sometimes I’m jealous of the clarity in the private sector that comes with having just a financial bottom line. When you’re faced with a hard choice—go left or go right—all you have to do is ask what would make us more money. In the public sector, the question is are you doing the most good for the most people, and that’s not as easy to answer as it may seem. It gets pretty thorny. Every day you ask yourself and the people around you if you’re doing a good job solving the problems that crop up—and any week in the mayor’s office has its share. When Sen. Cory Booker was mayor of Newark, N.J., people would frequently ask him “What’s the biggest problem in Newark?” People ask me the same thing about Ithaca, and in some cases there’s a lot of very specific challenges: You could say the high taxes or, in Newark, the high crime rate or the lack of investment in infrastructure. Like Booker, I think that the biggest problem in the public sphere is cynicism. That alone can make it impossible to solve all the other problems. If you can give people hope, if they believe that if they work a little bit harder the problems will get solved, the problems will get solved. Government is the ability to take one series of collective actions after another. I remain fascinated by the fact that when we take collective action, we can accomplish what no one person can accomplish on their own.

Elizabeth Meer, M.S. ’90

Elizabeth Meer
“My three-legged stool is hard work, humility and a sense of humor. Hard work, because you need to examine every side of an issue. Humility, because if it’s only your idea how good can it possibly be? And a sense of humor, because some days work can seem like a study in human frailty, but human beings are still a funny and lovable lot.”

Special Assistant for Pollution Prevention and Green Procurement, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
I work in programs on pollution prevention and green purchasing that are not regulatory. They are all voluntary and incentive-based. Success can be measured in part by whether a policy or program lasts for more than four years. Does it outlive the administration that created it? Our green procurement program was created under one administration, issued under another, and now Governor Andrew Cuomo has embraced it and made it his own. A successful program shows growth, over time, in resources and the commitment of the staff. Our program enjoys buy-in from ten different agencies, and staff have a real sense of ownership. That is what will make it last. And of course there are also more substantive metrics—have we reduced waste, toxic chemical exposures and energy use? Protected natural resources and helped build a vibrant, resilient economy? We now know that New York state agencies have reduced paper use by 53 percent and recycle 70 percent of their waste, which is really great. Every two years or so the state buys between $100 and $200 million worth of green computers, with the lowest levels of energy use and toxic chemicals and the highest level of recycled content available on the market. That’s huge. Ultimately, my goal is very close to the goal of the green economy movement: Figuring out a way for human beings to live happily on earth without destroying the resources needed to sustain us and our diverse ecosystem. 

Bryan Koon ’93 

Bryan Koon
“Be available, because understanding the point of view of all our stakeholders is key to everything we do. My cell phone number is on my business card, and I have handed out thousands of them over the years. People don’t necessarily call you, but they know they can.”

Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management
In statewide emergency management, we have the responsibility to prepare people for what might be the most traumatic event they will experience in their lifetime and to help them when it happens. It’s not just about survival—it’s about getting their lives back to normal as soon as possible. What appeals to me most about my job is the fact that I know what we do makes a difference in people’s lives. I can’t stop a hurricane from coming. I can’t stop a flood from occurring. But I can help our citizens get ready for both natural and man-made disasters in a way that will lessen the impact. In Florida, emergency management might call to mind primarily hurricanes, but we also deal with tornadoes, fires, floods and severe storms—and, recently, the Zika virus and the Pulse nightclub shooting. Until September, we actually hadn’t had a hurricane make landfall in Florida in 11 years, and during this time the state has experienced huge population growth. So part of the mandate is to prepare the millions and millions of new residents, and on any given day there are millions of tourists here who would need our assistance. I also focus on mitigating the impact of future disasters in the built environment, so houses don’t flood and wastewater treatment plants don’t fail because we are not building in high hazard areas. Appropriate building codes are as integral to emergency management as shelters, clothing, water and medicine are.