Advice from a long career in government: Talking leadership with the FTC’s Eileen Harrington

Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST - A view of the FTC building

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Due to a transcription error, a prior version of this blog post quoted Eileen Harrington as stating that the Credit Union of Ohio had negotiated a consent decree with the FTC at some point prior to 1986. In reality, she mentioned just that a credit union in Ohio negotiated that decree.

Eileen Harrington is the executive director of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). As the FTC’s associate director for marketing practices in 2004, she and her team developed and implemented the National Do Not Call Registry and were awarded the 2004 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Citizen Services Medal for their efforts. Harrington is retiring at the end of the month from the federal government after serving nearly 30 years. She spoke with Tom Fox, who is the guest writer of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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What are your leadership principles?

Effective leaders in the federal sector should always think, “Is this what the people in Peoria are paying for?” If you lose focus on what the public is paying you to do, you get into trouble. If you put anything before the public’s interest—particularly political considerations—you get into trouble. The second principle is giving my people everything they need to do the job, and then to get out of the way.

Was there a lesson early in your career that made an impact?  

In 1986 I left the FTC to take a job for the Credit Union National Association as their Washington counsel. I was at a governmental affairs conference when the president of [a credit union in Ohio] came up to me and introduced himself. I had negotiated a consent decree for his credit union when I was at the FTC because they were not notifying consumers properly of reasons for credit denial. To us, these were routine violations and we gave the credit union slap-on-the-wrist penalties. However, this man was devastated that his credit union hadn’t followed the law. He told me he had offered his resignation and then apologized to me for it having happened. It was a really sobering moment. It made me appreciate the power that the federal government has when it steps in and that there are real consequences that affect real people.

The National Do Not Call Registry is a prime example of government innovation. To what do you attribute making the registry a reality?

The idea came from the bottom up. We were looking at a huge number of complaints from citizens about companies not honoring their requests to cease calling. So we knew that there was a problem that had to be fixed. There was opposition on Capitol Hill and from the direct-marketing industry, but this was a fight worth taking on and so we did.

I also think there are some federal environments that are more amenable for innovation than others. For example, the FTC is an independent agency. If we had had to run all the traps that executive branch agencies have to run, Do Not Call probably would not have happened. I also think size matters. This is a small agency, we have about 1,200 employees. We have very few layers between the front- line staff and the chairman. People know each other. I think the further someone with an idea is from decision-makers, the less likely the innovation will happen. If we give workers more autonomy, even in large agencies, then more will stick their heads out of the foxhole and push for good ideas.

What are the keys to innovation in government?

The key to innovation is creating a genuine sense of individual responsibility and opportunity. To foster innovation, you must empower employees to be thoughtful about their work and make sure that they have an opportunity to talk to you. I meet several times a year with every single person who ultimately reports to me, and we just sit and talk. Everybody has something to say about what they’re doing and how it can be done better.

What do you wish you had known at the beginning of your career that you’d tell to rising federal leaders?

Consider public service as a career. When I started out, I thought “I’ll do this for a couple years. This is where you go to get experience and then you do something else.” Initially when I had met people who had been working for the FTC for 20 years, I thought, “These people must not be able to do anything else.” I was really clueless as to what a rich, amazing and rewarding opportunity that I had been given. What I’ve learned is that all the people that I’ve worked with at the FTC over the decades choose to do so because they’re really jazzed about their jobs.

More:

The best and worst places to work in government

Talking leadership with the Kennedy Space Center’s director

Advice for appointees in the second term

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