Federal Spotlight: Gary Washington
Gary Washington serves as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Here’s our inaugural Federal Spotlight interview with Gary Washington:
MC: How long have you been in Federal Service and what is your main responsibility in your role today?
GW: I have been in the public sector for more than 28 years. Ten of those have been in the military, with the U.S. Air Force. But, my entire career has been in the information technology (IT) field. My main responsibility as the CIO at APHIS is oversight of our IT infrastructure; this includes planning, investment, security, customer service, and application development. I personally manage 151 people out of a total of 281 IT professionals in the agency so I have to ensure we all work together seamlessly.
In addition, USDA has a goal to save $100 million in five commodity areas, two of which are under my purview – IT hardware and IT software. I am participating on a team along with some other IT executives to work to save funds and work effectively and efficiently.
MC: What is APHIS’ training strategy for its employees, beyond technical skills?
GW: We work with our managers to work on developing all employees’ soft skills, including –presentation, writing, communication, listening, speaking, and management skills. It’s a big issue and we encourage managers to work with their employees to ensure fully developed skills.
APHIS is primarily insourced, so there are more government employees than contractors. In addition, our workforce is very committed to longevity at APHIS; people have been here for a long time. When I came on a little over two years ago I inherited a mature workforce, so we are very committed to investing in the people we have and continue their growth, helping prepare them for the future.
MC: What keeps you motivated and passionate about working in the public sector?
GW: I am a self-motivated person and I strive for excellence at all times. I also expect a lot out of myself and I expect a lot out of people. I am always motivated to do the right thing and do my best. So we try to construct a team around us that feels the same way. I am passionate about excellence and great performance and I have always been willing to do whatever we can to put our employees in the best situation to be successful. I love the public sector. I get a sense of satisfaction when I accomplish something. I know I am doing something for the American public. I enjoy what I do and I enjoy who I do it for. I have a sense of purpose. And I do not take this job lightly.
For instance, I had the opportunity along with a few other CIOs to speak to some children in the area who had these phenomenal agricultural project presentations. So we spoke to them about who we are, where we came from, and how we got to do what we do, and we gave them some encouragement to keep trying. We don’t want them to give up. Science, technology, engineering, and math skills are very important so I like to be involved in projects that expose and encourage youth to strive for excellence in these areas.
MC: What has been your biggest achievement professionally or personally?
GW: When I was at HHS we deployed a department-wide IT hardware asset management system. When I was at the FDA I created the IT Governance Office in the office of the CIO from scratch. When I was at OMB, it was a fast two years; I was just trying to make sure we met the President’s IT goals. But I did set up the Cloud Computing Working Group.
But at the root of all these were the fact that they are governmentwide projects, I like working on projects with different Federal agencies. For instance, while on detail at OMB we were tasked to create a system for national responders. We had to work with 17 agencies to automate this whole system. So, if they wanted to select someone with very specific criteria they could go in this database and select someone.
In my career I have been very good at getting things kicked off, off the ground, and putting a structure in place and then somebody else will take it over. I think everybody has a role, some people are good at some things, and others are good at different things; I’m good at starting projects.
Personally, a little known fact is that I am a member of the Arthur Murray studio. They have showcases and within them are competitions. You get out there and compete against other people who are at your level. Lately I have been winning those competitions. I love ballroom dancing. It teaches a lot of social etiquette, discipline, and control. Dance brings all different types of people together. I am going to dance until my feet fall off.
MC: What advice would you share on making public service a career and not a pit stop?
GW: Stay with it! Public service has a lot to offer if you just stay with it! That does not mean you have to stay in the same agency. Just give it a chance, don’t be stuck on one way of doing things. I do think public service gives you a chance to be innovative and creative.
I have been in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives which is law enforcement; I have been at the Department of Treasury where I worked on the Reinventing Government movement when Al Gore was heading that up. I had the opportunity to work at OMB, Natural Resource Conservation Service, FDA at HHS, and now I’m at APHIS at USDA – most of these entities didn’t have much in common.
MC: What advice would you share with young people on entering government from college or high school?
GW: I would tell someone to be patient; there is a lot of value in working your way up and thinking independently.
They are looking for more minority farmers. Two percent of the population is farmers, and most of them are older. There are many opportunities and programs for young people who want to farm. Farming is not is just going out on the farm. In this agency we have a lot of veterinarians, entomologists, all kinds of people here with scientific degrees. APHIS has been pretty good about getting younger people hired by going out to universities and talking to people. We offer internships.
Bottom-line there is a lot of opportunity at USDA because FNS runs the food stamp program, APHIS does emergency response, NRCS does finance and technical assistant for farmers, Rural Development does grants, Forest Service does forestry, there are 45,000 people in the Forest Service. USDA has a lot to offer.
*Answers reflect Gary’s own personal views and do not reflect those in his official capacity.
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