The Business of Government Hour


About the show

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

The interviews

Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Melissa J. Allen interview

Monday, November 29th, 1999 - 20:00
Melissa J. Allen
Radio show date: 
Tue, 09/12/2000
Intro text: 
Missions and Programs...

Missions and Programs

Magazine profile: 
Complete transcript: 

Arlington, Virginia

Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Mr. Lawrence: Good evening and welcome to The Business of Government Hour, Conversation with Government Leaders. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and the co-chair of the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for The Business of Government. We created The Endowment in 1998 to encourage discussion and research and into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. To find out more about The Endowment visit us on the web at The Business of Government Hour focuses on outstanding government executives who are changing the way government does business. Our special guest tonight is Melissa Allen, Assistant Secretary for Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Welcome, Melissa.

Ms. Allen: Thank you very much. It's good to be here.

Mr. Lawrence: Let's start by finding out about the Department of Transportation. Can you tell us first about some of the most well-known agencies within the department?

Ms. Allen: Certainly. DOT was created a little bit over 30 years ago sort of as a holding company, and if you think about almost anything that moves in the United States or around the world, the Department of Transportation has some type of responsibility. As a holding company, we do a lot of operational things. The FAA, for example, I think a lot of people understand somehow that the government runs the air traffic control system.

On the other hand, we're a large grant-making organization. We give about $32 billion a year in grants to state and local communities, to universities, and research institutions. And we have a range of other types of responsibilities -- probably most notably, recently people have seen the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. We do the regulatory work and safety work having to do with cars and trucks on highways.

Mr. Lawrence: You have a very interesting role there. Can you tell us about the Office of Administration and its components?

Ms. Allen: The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration is the one assistant secretary called out in the legislation, although it's not specified what the Assistant Secretary shall do. And right now the responsibilities are for human resource management - the full range of policy advice to the senior leadership of the Department on how we manage the 100,000 people that work for the Department, the administrative services of the Department. Everything from how we consume energy to how we serve as a partner in environmental issues in communities, to security - that is, the internal security of the department, the physical security of our buildings around the world - and also grants and contract administration. We are the policymakers for the department and how we manage our grants and how we issue acquisition regulations for the department, so it's a wide range of things.

Mr. Lawrence: I understand the office has an interesting history. I've heard that the headcount has gone from nearly 600 FTEs to under 60, and this would seem to run counter to what we read about civil service building bureaucracies. I'm wondering what happened?

Ms. Allen: There are people who wonder if I knew what I was doing when I took this job. During the National Performance Review, sort of Phase II, which I think many of our listeners may be familiar with, but it was after the initial round of reinvention. The government looked hard at what types of functions we could actually turn into fee-for-service functions, and the Assistant Secretary for Administration used to both be the personnel policy for the Department and also run the personnel policy for the Office of the Secretary. We used to run the headquarters building.

At that point in time in late 1994, early 1995, there were probably around 600 people, not all federal employees, but contract and federal employees, working for the Assistant Secretary for Administration. I was asked to carve out all of the operational functions of the Assistant Secretary and create a stand-alone organization reporting directly to the deputy secretary, known as the Transportation Administration Services Center. That Center took all of those operation responsibilities away from -- and what's been -- what's left is the pure "policy" type of functions.

We are a staff of around 60 or 70, depending on the day of the week, and how were doing on hiring, but a staff of 60 or 70 people who really concentrate on policy advice to the leadership of the department.

Mr. Lawrence: What kind of challenges did that create, carving out the policy from the operation?

Ms. Allen: Probably the largest challenge was the personal challenge for people, who over the years, had developed relationships between the two parts of the organization, so that the policy people never did pure policy and the operational people never did pure operations. You always sort of worked as a team. And when you start splitting hairs, all of a sudden somebody finds that their relationship with somebody is changed entirely, and they no longer do something. They simply set the policy or somebody always does something and doesn't do the policy and quite frankly, there have been some wranglings between the two organizations, as to, 'No this is my responsibility,' 'No, that's your responsibility.' So I think probably the hardest change was for the employees themselves.

For my position, and the people who work directly for me, the biggest challenge was to feel like you had a full plate. You know, is policy really enough to keep us challenged, and I think the answer is, five years later, very definitely, if not more so.

Mr. Lawrence: You mentioned the Transportation Administrative Service Center, TASC. Can you tell us about that and the concept of franchise funds or reimbursable programs?

Ms. Allen: TASC, when it first started, probably focused most of its services on the DOT headquarters, and particularly on those DOT elements that are in the Nasif Building which is where this Office of the Secretary is located. They provided services initially on just a reimbursable basis with not enough of an accounting system backing them up to be able to say that it costs you 10 cents a page to do such and such or whatever.

They have evolved to the point where now we can actually price out services with them. We can go to them and say we want such and such a publication done, we want it done in multicolors, or whatever we want, and they can say to us -- this is what it's going to cost you and basically they bid their job.

As they've moved to that, they've also moved to servicing a lot more of the federal government, and probably their biggest success right now is that they are providing, or going to be providing, transit benefit services across the federal government, even the legislative branch, to employees who now will be able to buy transit benefits through the Transportation Administration Services Center.

Mr. Lawrence: Let's spend some time talking about your career. Can you describe the various positions you've had?

Ms. Allen: Sure. I came into the government in 1968 out of Goucher College, which is a liberal arts college up in Baltimore, with a major in American Studies. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I came in as a management intern, hired by the Navy Department. I was one of a class of probably 200 interns across the government. We did about a year's rotation in whatever organization we had been hired by and at the end of a year, moved into a permanent position. I went into management analysis and what used to be called manpower analysis, which I'm sure is incorrect politically now. Management and manpower analysis is part of the Navy Department, and I basically grew up in that part of the organization doing organizational studies.

I was very fortunate in the early 70s to be selected to head up, to chair, something called the Manpower Action Council, and this was during the period when Admiral Zumwalt was dealing with how we treat the sailor in the Navy.

Well, on the civilian side of the Navy, there used to be a Naval Materiel Command, which was all of the sort of business part of the Navy. It was the shipyards and the air rework facilities and things like that. The chief of naval materiel created this council - and asked me to chair it - of employees from throughout the Navy who went around to different facilities and said, what do you think of the Navy as an employer and what would you do to make it better?

So for a year and a half, as a 26-year old girl, because I was a girl back then, I went around to different facilities around the world, as far out as Hawaii, mostly in the United States, to talk to employees in all shifts in all sorts of venues to find out what they thought of us as an employer. And probably the most significant thing we did was to deal with the issue of accidents in the worksite. I remember Admiral Kidd, who was in the CNM saying if we can pay advance payment to contractors, why can't we advance money to injured employees who are injured on the job? And we actually got that changed so that they could get their money a lot sooner.

I then finished my tour and made a decision that I couldn't go back to being just what I used to be, and I moved over to the Treasury Department to work in the Bureau of Government Financial Operations amongst a bunch of accountants who put out regulations, internal to the government. From there I moved on to the Office of Management and Budget on the management side, became the transition paper author for the waste, fraud and abuse transition into the Reagan Administration and the "den mother," I said, for the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency. In the mid-80s, the then-Assistant Secretary for Administration at Transportation asked if I'd like to come over there as his deputy, and I did, and five years later here I am.

Mr. Lawrence: It's time for a break. It's a good point to stop. We'll be right back with more of The Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government of Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tonight's conversation is with Melissa Allen, Assistant Secretary for Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Well, in the last segment you talked a lot about your career. I'm wondering which positions or challenges provided you the best opportunities to develop as a leader?

Ms. Allen: I think probably starting with the Manpower Action Council, where I had to all of a sudden learn what it was like to lead a team of people, and then maybe jumping over to the work that I did with the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency. I also helped establish the president's Council on Management Improvement during the Reagan Administration. And that was the first opportunity I had to work with presidential appointees. They were all assistant secretaries for administration or the inspectors general. I don't know that I was the leader, but I was the pusher. And it was a challenge to me to learn how to get people to actually talk to one another and to agree with one another where there were points of agreement.

When I came to the Department of Transportation, my biggest challenge was creating, for then-Secretary Elizabeth Dole, the drug-testing program for federal employees. We were the first department to start drug testing, and it was my responsibility both to create the program and then to explain it to our employees. And that really put me in a position of having to be able to understand how employees felt about contentious issues like drug testing. So those things have sort of helped form my idea of how people should work together.

Mr. Lawrence: As all of our listeners know were now in the middle of a presidential election. In November we'll start the famous presidential transition period. Can you tell us about the activities the Department of Transportation is now undertaking to ensure a smooth transition?

Ms. Allen: I can certainly tell you about the ones that I'm involved in. I'm part of what the secretary refers to as his senior leadership team, mostly political appointees who report to him directly. And back in August we started having a conversation about the importance of the career leadership of the department during the transition. So, at the Secretary's behest, I've convened two focus groups.

One is of those individuals who by dint of their appointment, like the Commandant of the Coast Guard or Administrator Jane Garvey, over at the FAA, in fact, will still be around after the inauguration. Or people like myself, who are in senior career positions, who you assume will be around after the transition. And I've brought them together to start talking about the big issues of the process of transition. You know, what are the difficult things that have to happen during a transition in terms of the administration process?

And the second focus group is probably 40 career people at the senior 15 and SES level that we brought together to talk about what they want to see in terms of the management of the department, either continue or go away, and how do we create the picture, basically, for whoever the incoming president is, of the benefits of collaboration, or teamwork, or the way were organized, or the way we work in groups, et cetera.

And, I'm hoping, over the next couple of months with those two focus groups, to come up with a series of papers, their discussion points, for whoever the incoming transition team is to talk to them about the department.

Mr. Lawrence: You mentioned two groups in your answer. One, the political appointees who probably will not be around in the next administration, and the career civil servants who probably will, and they have an important role in the transition. I wonder if you could talk about the role and just some of the advice you would give to career civil servants dealing with the transition.

Ms. Allen: I think the first thing to recognize is that change, particularly significant change like this, is always fairly nerve-wracking. I mean, you worry about things. We've established eight years of relationships with the current political people. We understand their foibles, they understand our foibles and preferences, and how we interact. I think that it's important that career people recognize that this is going to be a relatively nervous time.

But if they go back to their bedrock, as I'm trying to do, that I'm here for public service, and I know I can do a good job, and I know that what I'm doing in terms of the way I'm doing things is the right way, then I think that no matter who wins in November, we can create the type of loyal civil service that has always been envisioned and that is that we work for whichever party is in power.

Mr. Lawrence: I understand you've now participated in several presidential transitions, and I'm curious about a lesson learned about what were the characteristics about the most successful transition?

Ms. Allen: The most successful transition was probably characterized by the outgoing team saying that they will be nice to the incoming team - setting the mode that they aren't going to either get everything done that they haven't gotten done in the past 4 years or 8 years, or however many years it was, or, that they will burn all the bridges and leave the dust to the incoming people. And in terms of the career civil service, that helps because then the relationship is a lot smoother in terms of the transition. It's not who-are- you-loyal-to during the period between November and January.

Mr. Lawrence: Do the transition periods always begin this early? You said you started in August.

Ms. Allen: My experience is no, that we probably are thinking a lot more about the process of transition this time than we have in the past. We probably won't get around to policy papers until actually about election time. But we really are - and a lot of agencies around town are apparently doing this - beginning to focus on what are the things that we've done organizationally or in the way we work with the American people, or with the Congress, that we either want to improve on or that we think are good and that we need to maintain.

Mr. Lawrence: Is it a stressful period, more or less?

Ms. Allen: As I think I said before, it has to be stressful, because it is a major change. I mean, you've become good friends with people over an 8-year period, you know, the people you work with, and you've become very used to them, and this is going to be -- whoever comes in, it's going to be a significant change.

On the other hand, it's really not threatening, it's just a level of stress, a level of unknown that I think creates the stress.

Mr. Lawrence: And people I think have the perception that during a transition, a department will stop while things get organized to start again. How much really stops?

Ms. Allen: I don't think anything really stops. I think the government keeps on going. There are things, operational things, that happen every day and will continue to happen. There are policy decisions that will continue to need to be made. And I think that the leadership in the career civil service knows enough and has enough experience to be able to step forward and help make those decisions when they're called upon to do so.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, great, it's time for a break. We'll be right back with more of The Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tonight's conversation is with Melissa Allen, Assistant Secretary for Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Melissa, one of your major responsibilities over the seven years has been "ONE DOT." Can you tell us about ONE DOT?

Ms. Allen: ONE DOT is an outgrowth of some of that 30-year history that I talked about of the Department of Transportation. Over the years there have been several organization proposals for changing the way we're structured. We seem to be structured on transit administration or the highway administration or specific responsibilities, and there's a growing recognition, not just in this administration, but in prior administrations, that in fact, those things are linked. You can't get to Reagan National Airport efficiently unless you have good roadways or good transit systems or whatever to get there.

When this secretary, Secretary Slater, was sworn in in February 1997, he challenged the leadership of the department, the senior political leadership, to think not about reorganization, but to think about a way of working better together, to think about transportation as a system, rather than transportation as several sets of operating administrations. We like to talk about ONE DOT as the place where any two systems intersect - then there ought to be collaboration and cooperation between and among both the DOT employees and also our constituents in coming up with a solution.

The examples are things like the Reagan National Airport. Getting transit to Reagan National Airport is a systems-type of response rather than just a transit response or just an airport-type of response. What we've done is attempt to get employees to understand. The framework question that I ask employees to think about is, 'If I am undertaking X project, who else in DOT knows something about it, could contribute to it, has a vested interest in it, or might help me get this project done?' And, if I'm a transit employee, and I need help from a safety engineer who works for the Motor Care Safety Administration, I ought to be able to reach over and ask for that assistance. Or if I work in the Coast Guard, and I'm dealing with oil spills on water, who else has to deal with that type of issue, and I should collaborate with them. So what we've tried to do is to change the way we work, not the way were organized. Forget moving boxes around and things like that -- create these intermodal teams.

The other thing that we've done is that we've attempted -- and I can't say that were totally successful, but I think we're getting there -- to empower the employee who's in charge of a project to make those connections. They don't have to go up the bureaucracy and back down the bureaucracy to get the connection made. They can in fact, pick up the phone and call a fellow worker and say, I need your help on this.

We've reinforced it by expanding the number of people that we call senior leaders in the department. I think I referenced earlier the Secretary's Senior Leadership Team as being the top 20 people, and that still is true, but we have followed a model espoused by John Kotter up at the Harvard Business School, that is a transformation of organization model. And one of the things that he says is important that we've attempted to do is to expand your guiding coalition. So for example, two years ago, we began to have leadership conferences where it was not only the political appointees and one or two career people, but now if there are 200 people at a conference, 120 to 150 of them are career people and 50 of them are political leaders. We talk about leadership issues, and we talk about issues of working together and what systems in the department keep us from working together, and some of them are very basic systems.

Some of them are systems like the way we formulate budgets. Our budgets are presented in the modal lines, so there's a highway budget, and there's a transit budget, but if we have collaborative projects, shouldn't we in fact collaborate on how we formulate that budget, and were starting to change that. The presentation is still the same but the talking before the budget decisions are made is entirely different.

Communications is another example. Like many organizations, we are just learning how to really use e-mail effectively, and intranet and the internet, and we are trying to encourage employees to talk across lines.

Finally, the other thing that we've done that I think is very significant, is that we have established things that we call flagships. You can give them any name you want, but they were high priority projects that we agreed those 200 people that are going to these conferences are important enough to the American people that we need to get them done. We've put career people, normally at the GS-15 level, in charge of those projects, and those career people report to the Secretary and his immediate team of 20 people, and they are empowered to create action plans, request budgets, work across organizational lines, and report successes and plead for help when they need assistance. And it's made a large difference. People are beginning to reach out.

Mr. Lawrence: You indicated that communication was important, and I'm sure training was important too. What type of training is offered for employees related to ONE DOT?

Ms. Allen: At the very beginning of this we had a course that was known as 'partnering for excellence' that was basically learning how to work across organizational lines and how to collaborate and share assignments.

We also have had now seven leadership conferences where we've invited speakers from the private sector to come in and talk to us about the leadership challenges that they face. What does a General Electric face as a leadership challenge? What does an IBM, a K-Mart, a Wal-Mart, Home Depot? What is it that they have faced as a leadership challenge that we can learn from them? And we take that back to all the other hundred thousand employees and say, 'These are the kernels of information that we've gathered,' and we share that on our Internet site.

Mr. Lawrence: What have you learned about large-scale organizational transformation from ONE DOT?

Ms. Allen: That it takes an awful long time. I think that probably goes without saying. It also takes a great deal of dedication on the part of the most senior people to keep it going, and if you sort of lose sight of it for any period of time, the people don't believe that your really serious about it.

So, one of the ways we reinforce that is that the Secretary, every Thursday, meeting with his senior political appointees, talks about ONE DOT. That is all we do. We deal with what's going on in different projects or what's going on in the systems changes, how are we doing as a department in terms of the change, how would we measure our successes, and where are our failures and what do we need to improve them? It's that concentrated attention that is making progress, but we can't stop here because if we do it will just all fall apart, I think.

Mr. Lawrence: What are some of the chief challenges associated with ONE DOT?

Ms. Allen: Probably the biggest challenge is the question of reward. If I work in an organization, and I'm not picking on them, but say the Federal Transit Administration, and I work for a boss who works in the Federal Transit Administration, his reward or his expectations of me are one thing that may or may not support my working with somebody in the Federal Highway Administration to accomplish something. So employees -- torn loyalties are too strong -- but basically, have those torn loyalties as to where their primary allegiance is.

The other big challenge, I think, is to recognize that large parts of the department will never be ONE DOT. I like to use the example of, I don't want an air traffic controller controlling traffic in Chicago to worry about the transit connections to the Chicago O'Hare Airport, that's not their responsibility. They're to do something that is purely their responsibility. They don't need to be concerned about the other issues in ONE DOT.

Mr. Lawrence: What's the employee's perception of ONE DOT?

Ms. Allen: I think, from my perspective, talking about employees, and I have to pause at that, that the jury is still out. People who have participated in projects, who've seen successful collaboration, who've seen the rewards come their way are true believers. People who have not yet seen something actually happen, or whose projects have been defeated along the line -- they didn't get the funding, they can't get the attention that they need, or whatever -- remain very skeptical about it.

On the other hand, most employees do seem to recognize that you can no longer just talk about their particular function, that they do have to be aware of what else is going on in the department.

Mr. Lawrence: One of the interesting things that I read about ONE DOT was the role of regional champions. Could you tell us about who they are and what they do?

Ms. Allen: Sure. DOT does not have at the DOT level, regional directors or regional organizations. We have them at each one of the modal levels. So, in the Chicago region, there's an FAA regional director and there's a Federal Railroad regional director and a Coast Guard, et cetera. The concept of a champion was to ask the teams of regional directors in any regional city to come together on issues that were of concern to them, and then to assign to them some member of the senior leadership who has no responsibility for them to help them break down bureaucratic barriers.

Mr. Lawrence: It's time for a break. We'll be right back with more of The Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tonight's conversation is with Melissa Allen, Assistant Secretary for Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

I'd like to talk to you about some of the challenges facing the new administration. I know that you participated in several of the Endowment forums on the future of civil service. Can you tell us what you think? What might contribute to making the civil service stronger in the 21st century?

Ms. Allen: Well, I think they are two big challenges for the civil service. The first is to instill not a sense of accountability, because I believe that that's there, but a way of measuring accountability and holding people accountable at the most senior levels of the career civil service. I don't have an answer format for that. Somebody said, then what is your major bullet? I have said this before in some of the PricewaterhouseCoopers forums and I'll say it in other forums, is that at it's most extreme, it seems to me, that eventually you would have an executive service where we actually enter into employment contracts, and we enter into employment contracts with an agency that says in X number of years I'm going to get Y done for you and at the end of that period, we can renegotiate my contract or else I can go find another job. That's probably the ultimate type of thinking in terms of where I can see the accountability issue going. But in the interim, I think we're challenged to hold people accountable to what is expected of them in the outcomes that the GPRA talks about in terms of what we're delivering to the American public.

The other challenge, quite frankly, is this whole issue of brain drain or loss of senior people or whatever. When I came into the government back in 1968, I never thought I would be one of them, but I am in fact 53 years old and ready to retire. I can retire now, but I can retire in two years with full retirement. There are enormous numbers of people in the government. I forget the numbers that the GAO has been talking about and OPS has been talking about, but there are enormous numbers of people who are eligible to retire. And the challenge is to replace those people both with people from inside the government, that is, grow our own talent, but also from outside the government.

When we don't pay competitive salaries, and we probably never will, when the hours and the locations of jobs -- many of the government's jobs are like the people who are fighting forest fires out in the West -- I mean that's not exactly the prime type of recruiting mechanism that you can use.

So, I think we're faced with accountability on the one side from the most senior levels, and the challenge of bringing people into the government to understand that they don't have to spend a career here. I'm a dinosaur of the last generation that's going to spend 35 years in government probably. In the future, we will hire people, and they will move in and out much more flexibly, I think.

Mr. Lawrence: We'll, you've just described two problems, the retirement problem and the difficulty of attracting people to the government. How does DOT attract people?

Ms. Allen: I think we do probably what a lot of other agencies do, we hire a lot of technical people, a lot of people with engineering backgrounds. We recruit at the best schools, we go out and make internships available, we go out and have programs with scholarships attached to them to help young people understand that they can find a career in the government.

The other thing that we do is that we challenge them to understand that their contribution, no matter how long they're here, is going to be a significant one, that they will make a difference. I mean it's, in a way, appealing to their altruism, but it's also that you will have significant responsibilities as a very junior person.

Mr. Lawrence: We also hear a lot about the impact of technology on government. How do you see technology impacting the future of the Department of Transportation?

Ms. Allen: In two ways. Certainly on our operational side. The future of the aviation system and the future of the Coast Guard are going to be very technology-driven. How we do search and rescue in the Coast Guard in the future will not be the same way that we've done it in the past.

The other side of the department, the grant-making side of the department, actually is beginning to move out in technology in terms of dealing with grant applications and certifications and reviews and things like that. We are moving more and more to the point of exchanging information electronically, so we're depending a lot more on the ability to get information back and forth very quickly so we can make decisions.

Mr. Lawrence: How do you see the Department changing in the decade ahead?

Ms. Allen: Probably there will be a lot more attention to the issue of what our unique contribution can be to the dialogue about the transportation solutions of the future. I think in the past we've tended to be the force behind transportation decisions and beginning with ICE-T back during the Bush Administration and the NEXT-T solution of this administration and future.

We will work much more collaboratively with local communities, with all sorts of interests, and we'll require a different skill set of our employees to be able to do that. I mean, it's a different skill set to be able to make a decision and just run with it as opposed to listening to all sides of an argument and coming to a conclusion.

Mr. Lawrence: What advice would you have for somebody who listens to you and says, 'One day I'd like to be the Assistant Secretary for Administration," and maybe they're somewhat younger and just beginning in their career. What advice would you have for them for the jobs to take and things to be thinking about now?

Ms. Allen: I think the biggest thing that I would encourage people to do is to move around, to not assume that their career path is necessarily in DOT, not necessarily in one functional area. I mean, I think one thing that's held well for me is the fact that I could never hold a job for very long, or never wanted to hold a job for very long, and got a lot of different experiences. And that they shouldn't be shy about sometimes leveling out in their career and maybe not always advancing. You don't always have to go for the next promotion, it might be the next experience and to reach for that.

And, finally, to avail themselves of as many opportunities as they can to interact with some of the senior people so that they can understand that sort of process of decision-making and to observe it and participate in it as much as possible.

Mr. Lawrence: We hear that the civil service is kind of an impersonal system, and I'm wondering, did you have mentors in your career?

Ms. Allen: I certainly did. At the time I wouldn't have thought of them as mentors, but certainly Admiral Isaac Kidd, who was the chief of Naval Materiel with the Manpower Action Council was a mentor. Howard Messner, who hired me over to OMB and raised me up through the management side of OMB was a mentor. And within the Department of Transportation there have been several, including the current Secretary who has given me reign to do a lot of different things that I never thought I could get done and would get done.

Mr. Lawrence: How valuable is that in someone's career and what type of thing should they be getting from that person?

Ms. Allen: It's valuable in the sense that it helps you be able to advance and sort of stretch yourself. On the other hand, I don't think you can depend on mentors to do that for you, and I think you have to listen to what they're saying to you and push them and push yourself to stretch out and do things.

I think the one caution that I would give is that you don't let a mentor break down all the barriers for you. They can't be the one who always gets you the new job or always gets you the new assignment or whatever. I think sometimes you have to do that on your own and sort of say, 'I'm free.' It's like a child growing up, you know - I get to make my own decisions, I get to make my own mistakes.

Mr. Lawrence: Earlier you talked about appealing to the altruism of people who now join the federal government. I wonder if you contrast perhaps to your feelings when you first joined some time ago.

Ms. Allen: I came into the federal government sure that I would leave within three years, having been told by my father that I should earn some money after college. So I don't know where the altruism was there, but it really was the challenge that kept me there.

It was the experience and the responsibility that I was given at a very young age to do things that I wouldn't have been given in other environments. You know, I was responsible for a study of how we handled weapons explosives down at Indian Head at the ordinance facility there. I did the Manpower Action Council when I was 26 years old. I mean, you don't get that type of experience in the private sector, at least my sense is, you don't get that opportunity.

Mr. Lawrence: Yes, we hear a lot for people who 30 years or so ago said that the real new technology and the major challenges were in government. Do you still think that's true?

Ms. Allen: I actually think it's probably shared a lot more than it used to be, and that if I were to counsel somebody coming into government, I would say to them, don't think of this as a 30-year career, but think about what advantages you can get for working in the government and then what advantages you could get from working in other sectors.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, thank you very much, Melissa, for spending time with us this evening. I am afraid we're out of time, but I've enjoyed our conversation very much.

Ms. Allen: Thank you.

Mr. Lawrence: This has been The Business of Government Hour, Conversation with Government Leaders. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the co-chair of the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for The Business of Government. To learn more about The Endowment's programs and research, and new approaches to improving government effectiveness, visit us on the web at See you next week.

Melissa J. Allen interview
Melissa J. Allen

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