Margaret A. Hamburg, an experienced medical doctor, scientist and public health executive, has been the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration since 2009, helping the agency carry out its mission to protect and promote the public health. Hamburg graduated from Harvard Medical School and has served as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Hamburg spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Government Leadership.
What’s your advice for other federal leaders looking for ways to bring innovation to their organizations?
Begin by focusing on the mission of the agency. At FDA, our mission is to promote and protect the health of the public. As commissioner, I’ve worked hard to galvanize people around that idea. I want employees to be thinking about the unique and essential contribution they are making to our mission.
Once an organization has a strong sense of mission, leaders can focus on trying new things. In these challenging times, sometimes the only way to accomplish your mission is by doing something in a different way. It’s very been important for us to respond to the extraordinary advances in science and technology that are constantly unfolding around us.
We’ve also had to respond to changes in our environment. We understand that we live in a globalized world and can no longer behave as an exclusively domestic agency. The world is moving so fast around us that we certainly can’t stand still.
How have you been able to keep the folks at FDA motivated and engaged in the agency’s mission?
It’s been critically important to remind our employees that their work is appreciated, understood and respected. I would be a total fool to believe that I could this job effectively without the kind of talented, knowledgeable people we have at FDA. I have a responsibility to let them know that I understand their importance to the institution and appreciate what they bring to it.
I support them in their work, intellectually and scientifically, and am an advocate for their work-life needs and the advancement of their professional careers. I am committed to making sure our employees have career development pathways, ongoing education, as well as engagement with the broader scientific community, which will inspire them to do their jobs better. This ability to continue learning from, and interacting with, colleagues — inside and outside of the FDA — is essential to keeping everyone motivated and engaged. And they need to be rewarded for the important work they do.
What are you doing to attract new talent?
One of the things we’re trying to do is broaden understanding of the agency. We are unique in that we are a science-based regulatory agency with an exciting and important public health mission. However, many young people pursuing careers in science or medicine or public health still don’t think of the FDA.