By Stephanie Colorado.
Danny Werfel recently spoke to the Duke in D.C. students about his public service career. Werfel had more than sixteen years of experience in the public sector before transitioning to the private sector. Werfel was presidentially appointed as IRS Acting Commissioner in the midst of the 2013 IRS targeting controversy. Prior to the IRS, Werfel spent 16 years at the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where he served as Federal Controller and further assumed the responsibilities of the Deputy Director of Management. With his direct and indirect involvement in seminal challenges the government has faced since the late 1990’s, Werfel revealed himself as a “Forest Gump of Government,” and lightly brands himself as a “geeky, public sector management guy.”
Werfel began his public service career in the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in 1997, after receiving a Juris Doctor and Masters of Public Policy from the joint Duke-UNC program. Werfel thrived at the OMB, but transitioned to the Department of Justice. Upon returning to the OMB to work on education issues, he received an offer for the position of Acting Controller of the United States by the end of the Bush administration.
The incoming Obama Administration desired Werfel’s help in both writing and implementing an aggressive set of audit and transparency requirements for the 2009 Recovery Act stimulus package. While Werfel began the project as the Acting Controller, the president soon appointed him to serve as the official US Controller.
During Obama’s first term, “there were a lot of urgent situations and crises,” Werfel recalls. The Recovery Act, the deepwater horizon oil spill, the threat of government shutdown, and nearly surpassing the debt limit all presented opportunities for Werfel to perform and impress under fire. He was “no longer a Forest Gump in the background” and his role as an administrator expanded. With the revelation of the IRS targeting controversy, the Obama administration asked Werfel to serve as IRS Acting Commissioner. Though humbled at the Administration’s level of trust in him, Werfel knew that the experience would be arduous. He describes the moment of accepting the position, as putting on his “game face,” and preparing himself for what lay ahead
When asked how to inspire more young people to serve in government. Werfel answered that more Americans need to be educated about the importance of government in day-to-day life. He recommends showing how policy and regulatory frameworks exist to enhance quality of the most ordinary aspects of our lives, from the breakfast we eat to the cars we buy. He also encourages a larger spotlight for the work of civil servants in order to inspire young people to be involved. Werfel recalls the annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Awards, which he describes as an inspirational event that thanks individuals and teams, from scientists at the NIH to law enforcement officers, for their work in public service. He mentioned that he wishes the “Sammies” were covered the same way the Oscars are covered.
When pressed on what he believes an agency can do to restore its reputation amidst controversy, he replied that, per his experience as Acting Commissioner of the IRS, restoring public trust is the fundamental first step. He pointed out three main steps to achieving this. First, he recommends establishing a path of accountability for past mistakes. He asserts that accountability should be swift and robust, but fair. He warns against an overextended focus on punishment and suggests larger emphasis on lessons learned by the organization.
Secondly, Werfel recommends fixing the problem as transparently as possible, but also making steps beyond just addressing the issue. According to Werfel, leaders need to explain in clear terms what they will do, how they will measure or evaluate progress, and how that information will be made available to the public so that they can hold the agency accountable. Lastly, Werfel advises leaders to look at the organization broadly. He explained that though the crisis was most likely located within a specific part of the organization, the public is justified in asking whether that failure is persistent throughout. Leaders should use that opportunity to look at all processes and renew emphasis on getting back to the basics of operational efficiency and effectiveness.
Finally Werfel was asked what government officials and public servants can do to restore public trust given today’s intense partisanship and declining trust in government. He started by explaining that trust has pieces to it. When dealing with an issue, sometimes five problems are fixed while creating four new ones. When this occurs, public sector leaders must determine whether the approach – with all its various pros and cons – creates a net positive impact for the taxpayer. Werfel believes the government should move forward when the impact is net positive for taxpayers, but he also recognizes that in many instances not everyone will agree, recognize, or appreciate the agency’s perspective. Werfel commented that in a political context, there is often a focus on the new problems created by a proposed solution instead of looking at all the moving pieces and the potential for a net positive impact. His hope is that more people will step forward and contribute to an “enlightened dialogue” on the pros and cons to reduce instances of discussing public policy as binary – one party is right and the other is wrong.