Getting “ready to govern” at the EPA

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Getting “ready to govern” at the EPA

How the Partnership prepared one political appointee for a new professional challenge

New presidents are responsible for making roughly 4,000 political appointments across government. To work effectively, these appointees need to learn how to navigate a complex federal organization. Ready to Govern® prepares them to tackle this challenge from the moment they enter office. Since 2013, the program has helped more than 1,500 political appointees better manage their agencies, understand federal rules and regulations, and build networks that enable collaboration and creative problem-solving. Read more below to learn how Ready to Govern helped Gwen Keyes Fleming become an effective chief of staff for the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2013, Gwen Keyes Fleming embarked on the biggest challenge of her career. After working five years as a district attorney in DeKalb County, Georgia and another three as the regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, Fleming came to Washington, D.C. to  serve as the EPA’s chief of staff—a position that required her to oversee 15,000 employees working across the country and the world, several large teams and subcomponents, and an international office.

Ready to Govern helped Fleming manage these dizzying responsibilities, providing her with the skills, tools and professional networks to manage EPA staff and projects, and respond adeptly to unexpected crises like the 2013 government shutdown.  

“Ready to Govern is the place—and the Partnership for Public Service is the place—where you learn how to manage competing priorities and also build the network of support that will help you further [your career],” she said.

Gwen Keyes Fleming, former chief of staff at the EPA
Gwen Keyes Fleming, former chief of staff at the EPA

Inspired to public service

Fleming came to Washington, D.C. with a deep background in public service. Her father was a Tuskegee Airman who served in government for 40 years as an engineer at the Picatinny Arsenal in Dover, New Jersey. He was also one of the first African Americans to run for elected office on the local school board in her hometown.  

Guided by this example, Fleming interned with a local prosecutor’s office after earning her law degree at Emory University and soon thereafter became the first African American and first woman to serve as district attorney for the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit in DeKalb County, Georgia.

In 2010, she began applying her legal skills to federal work, overseeing environmental policy in eight southeastern states and six federally recognized tribes as the EPA’s Region 4 regional administrator.     

“Being able to creatively think of ways to use the full power of the federal government to [help others] was something that was always appealing,” she said.

“Ready to Govern is the place—and the Partnership for Public Service is the place—where you learn how to manage competing priorities and also build the network of support that will help you further [your career].”

Gwen Keyes Fleming

Responding to new challenges

Still, working as a chief of staff for a Cabinet-level agency was a whole new challenge. As the agency’s self-described “air traffic controller,” she had to monitor the status of dozens of intersecting EPA projects, strategically elevate issues to the agency administrator, delegate authority to staff across the organization, and coordinate messaging and policy with both the White House and other agencies.

She said Ready to Govern helped her “create that personal management of time and resources that could then be used to delegate and create accountability and information streams throughout the agency.”

One of the most useful tools was a Ready to Govern template that helped her gather information about EPA projects, track their status and communicate updates to key stakeholders within the agency.   

“I created this matrix based on the buckets that I learned from Ready to Govern to help me manage a very broad landscape of issues,” she said.

By tracking these projects effectively, Fleming could better elevate potential issues to the EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, and respond to unexpected crises.

For example, she recalled drawing on lessons from Ready to Govern to keep the EPA running during the 16-day government shutdown in October 2013.

As a result of the shutdown, the EPA furloughed nearly 94% of its employees—one of the highest percentages of any federal agency. During that time, staff could not check email or use their government-issued cell phones, and were prohibited from working remotely. The stoppage occurred just as the agency planned to roll out new carbon emissions regulations, delaying central elements to then-President Obama’s climate change agenda.

She credited Ready to Govern with helping her manage workflows for essential staff still in the office and communicate with furloughed employees about agency operations during a time of uncertainty.  

“The multifaceted approach that I learned from Ready to Govern helped me just kind of keep my thumb on the pace of everything,” she said.

Select Curriculum

We emphasize the most relevant information appointees need to do their jobs effectively. Our courses include:

Building a Strong Team: Political-Career Collaboration

Learn to build a strong team by overcoming traditional stereotypes held by both appointees and career executives.

Stakeholder Strategies: Working with the White House, OMB, and Other Agencies

Recognize and learn to build and manage successful relationships with key players within the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and other federal agencies.

Ethics and Optics

Recognize and avoid common legal and ethical violations, and identify the stakeholders who can help you navigate federal rules and regulations.

What the Federal Budget Process Means to Your Success

Become familiar with the federal budget process and understand how it affects the president’s priorities and funds the operations of the federal government.

Building a network

Ready to Govern also enabled Fleming to cultivate new professional networks that helped her navigate her new role. Her program cohort was comprised of other agency chiefs of staff who had similar job responsibilities, and she eventually came to see the group as a “fraternity of sorts” that shared best practices and common challenges.

“I was new to D.C. headquarters politics,” she said. “Being able to be in the room with other chiefs of staff who had the same challenges, opportunities, pressures and stresses seemed to be a great opportunity to learn from others in that space.”

Fleming’s network grew further when these chiefs of staff took other positions in government, connecting her with stakeholders across government who could flag certain “landmines” as she and her team designed, implemented and oversaw EPA policy.

“Ready to Govern helped in terms of understanding who the players are for you to get the information about the [federal] landscape,” she said.

Fleming also said the network made it easier for her to align EPA talking points on the 2013 government shutdown with the messaging coming from both the White House and other agencies.

“I was able to draw up the notion that we weren’t in this by ourselves,” she said.

“I was new to D.C. headquarters politics.”

Gwen Keyes Fleming

Ongoing lessons

Fleming left government in 2017 after a two-year stint as chief of staff at the EPA and another two-years as principal legal advisor (aka general counsel) for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

However, she has carried the lessons she learned from Ready to Govern into her current role as a partner at Van Ness Feldman, a law and policy firm specializing in environmental, energy and natural resources law. She still has her Ready to Govern notes and said the program has helped her manage relationships and ensure key internal stakeholders buy in to the work she does.

But Fleming sees Ready to Govern’s true impact in broader terms. By providing political leaders with the tools to succeed, she said, the program enables political appointees to communicate their experiences in government compellingly to wide audiences. She believes that shining a light on this work is critical to recruiting more people to public service.  

“There is a role that the Partnership plays in giving basic tools and advice to those that are in government, so as they go out and talk about their experiences, they may draw in a larger crowd of folks that say, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of that solution,’” she said.

Continue reading for information on how to participate in Ready to Govern.

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