Too Good for Government

Two bureaucrats fought the system — and paid the price

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Illustration by James Yang for TIME

Claire Broido Johnson was the kind of private-sector go-getter you don’t expect to find in middle management at a federal agency. After graduating from Harvard and Harvard Business School, then structuring energy deals for major banks and other corporations, she helped found the pathbreaking solar firm SunEdison. But in 2009, inspired by President Obama’s hopey-changey rhetoric, she joined the Energy Department. In 2010, when its Office of Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs (OWIP) was flat-lining, she was assigned to defibrillate it.

Since it’s almost impossible to fire civil servants, Bush Administration energy officials had stockpiled stiffs at OWIP, hoping to get rid of them en masse by killing the so-called Turkey Farm or slashing its $300 million budget. But the Obama stimulus law gave OWIP $11.3 billion for low-income home weatherization and other energy-efficiency programs—a mind-boggling sum the agency couldn’t handle. The result was paralysis. California was supposed to weatherize 2,500 homes a month to save residents electricity and money; in 2009 it finished 12.

Johnson wasn’t much of a diplomat, but she had brains, business chops and a bull-in-a-china-shop mentality. “She was like a hurricane hitting the building,” recalled one colleague I interviewed for my new book, The New New Deal. Johnson launched military-style programs like Operation GreenLight to cut red tape and a “SWAT team” to pressure slowpokes. Predictably, she ruffled feathers at the Turkey Farm. One lifer buried his nose in a newspaper whenever she approached; another filed a grievance after she chastised him for napping on the job. She devised a secret Operation Cupcake to try to fire the laggards, but the civil-service cupcakes knew political appointees come and go. They called themselves WeBes, as in We be here, you be gone.

Meanwhile, another private-sector refugee was driving change at another public-sector backwater, the General Services Administration. GSA received $5.5 billion in stimulus cash for federal green-building projects, and public building commissioner Bob Peck, a well-respected real estate executive, saw the windfall as the agency’s moon shot. He helped install a “speed-dating” program to negotiate small contracts with minimal review. He used GSA projects to beta-test brand-new energy-saving approaches and build demand for emerging technologies like LED lighting and geothermal heat pumps. And as Peck explains, going green isn’t just about high-tech bling. A renovation of the GSA headquarters will accommodate thousands more employees, saving $20 million a year on leases for spillover office space as well as utility bills. It will be greener in the same way dense cities are greener than sprawling suburbs. When I visited, Peck had moved four staffers into his 800-sq.-ft. McMansion of an office. “Who needs all that territory?” he asked. “We’re not Neanderthals anymore.”

Many of Peck’s real estate innovations became standard federal practice. Johnson’s in-your-face management ramped up the weatherization rate from 30,000 homes a year to 30,000 homes a month. They both fought the system and won.

But then they lost. Johnson’s enemies leaked e-mails to the inspector general that revealed she violated procedures to fast-track the hiring of a deputy. “The HR process is just too slow,” she had written. “I need competent bodies now who can help.” For the crime of trying to whip an incompetent bureaucracy into shape without jumping through every required hoop, she was forced to resign. “If I had kept my head down, I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble,” she says. “But I wouldn’t have gotten anything done.”

Peck was also forced to resign, for being the highest-ranking official to attend an over-the-top taxpayer-funded GSA conference in Las Vegas that featured a psychic and a clown. He didn’t set up the conference, but this kind of Washington scandal demands ritual sacrifice. “There’s a zero-defect mentality,” Peck says. “People say they want government run like a business, but obviously they don’t.”

Johnson and Peck will be fine. She’s an executive for an energy-efficiency firm. He’s back in private real estate. It’s the country that will suffer for Washington’s stay-the-course culture. As long as government chews up people who drive change, it will attract people who embrace the status quo.