Robert Perciasepe is the deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and for a time served as acting administrator. Prior to joining the Obama administration, he was chief operating officer of the National Audubon Society, held environmental posts in the Clinton administration and served as Maryland’s secretary of the environment. He speaks here about managing the EPA with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. What is your leadership style?
A. I have a great sense of humor, and I use my sense of humor to put people at ease. In government, particularly, you have to be open and hear what people have to say. And you have to make sure people feel comfortable going through the pros and cons of whatever policies you’re working on. My leadership style is to bring out the best in people, and that’s what I think about when I sit down at a meeting—how am I going to make everyone feel comfortable and talk about what we really need to talk about?
Q. What advice do you have for leaders coming into the federal government from the private sector?
A. My advice is that you are a steward of public funds and you are charged with that responsibility in addition to the substance of what your agency is doing. You have to expect that there’s going to be more checks and balances. This frustrates some people, but it’s an added responsibility that you have in public service management that some people aren’t quite as prepared for.
Q. What type of culture are Administrator Gina McCarthy and you trying to foster within the EPA?
A. We want to build up the career leadership and the career employees. We recently had our Senior Executive Service and other senior managers together to rally around the priorities that we see for the agency in the coming term. It was the first time we had gotten all those people together in quite a while, and it was an uplifting experience. We spent a significant amount of time during that two-day conference talking about empowering our employees, providing venues for them to be more engaged with the work and finding ways to work around the financial constraints.
Q. What are some of those priorities for the coming year?
A. One is to improve our relationships with the states and to create a new era of cooperation. The environmental programs in the United States are implemented in a partnership between the states and the agency, and that relationship has been strained because their budgets have been cut, our budgets have been stagnant and now are being cut, and we’re all scrambling to try to figure out how we readjust.
We also want to make sure the work we’re doing is visible in the communities, so that when you live in a town in Iowa, Colorado or Maine, you can understand what it is that EPA’s programs are doing—whether it’s making sure all the cars in your community are clean, cleaning up a brownfield site or making sure the water systems are safe.
Q. What are your top management priorities?
A. We want to make EPA a high-performing organization. This gets at many of the issues that percolated in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, not just this year, but in previous years. Resources have been constrained for employee training, for travel to do inspections or go to meetings, and for rewards for good work. We need to find resources to support the workforce. We also want to help pull people together. We call it working as one EPA. Whether you’re in the air program or in the regional office in Boston or in California, we want people to be thinking that they’re part of that larger whole and that everybody can rely on each other. So we’re really trying to build a stronger sense of camaraderie and look at how our internal business processes work.
Q. Do you have specific plans in this regard?
A. We have a program that we’re piloting called Skills Marketplace. We have 15,000 employees and they all have tons of skills. Some of them might be working for the organization in one part of the country, but if another part of the agency has a real demand for a project for a couple of months or weeks, we want to be able to have a system in place where skills can be marketed around. It allows entrepreneurial managers to solve a problem, and it allows our employees to have experiences in different parts of the organization. For younger folks, having that experience in a different program really is going to enhance their overall feeling about the agency.