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‘Sammies’ awards for federal workers honor NASA, other agency achievements

Growing up, Gregory Robinson tuned into the Apollo-era moon missions like millions of Americans. Although he was strong in math and science, as one of 11 children of sharecroppers in segregated Danville, Va., “I never had a burning in my soul to join NASA.”

But after friends with internships at the agency talked about the challenges of space exploration, Robinson was intrigued. He signed-up, and “I never looked back.”

Now, Robinson is the newly minted 2022 Federal Employee of the Year,

The Partnership for Public Service will fete Robinson’s leadership as re director of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, and other winners of the Service to America Medals, a.k.a. the Sammies,” on Tuesday evening at a Kennedy Center ceremony. This is the 21st year of the awards, dubbed the Oscars of government service and among the most coveted in federal work. Federal Employee of the Year is the top prize.

Although Robinson hasn’t looked back, his work on the Webb telescope has allowed us to look far, far away, deep into space. Orbiting 1 million miles from Earth, it is “the world’s largest, most powerful, and most complex space science telescope ever built,” according to NASA. “Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it.”

Before Webb could tackle those mysteries and before Robinson took over, it was a mystery when it would launch and how much it would cost. Webb, which started with a planned June 2014 launch and a $4.9 billion budget including five years of operation, was way behind schedule and way over budget. Its cost eventually rose to $9.7 billion.

What the project needed, said Karen Flynn, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for management, was someone who could forge success among a team of 10,000 people in 14 countries.

That someone was Robinson, who became director in 2018, and oversaw the successful launch on Christmas Day last year. He retired in July at age 62.

It “takes true leadership and vision and focus in order to be able to do that,” she said by phone. “And so that’s what I would principally say Greg brought to the team,” calling him a “truly unique world class leader.”

Flynn praised Johnson, who has two degrees from historically Black colleges and universities, plus an MBA, as “one of the most engaged leaders that we have within NASA in the area of diversity and inclusion.”

Johnson had no role models like him in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — during his youth. Time and location matter, he likes to say, and while he was growing up in Danville, college wasn’t a priority. “For many families,” he said, “it was a heavy lift to finish high school.”

When I asked the winners what they like least about federal service, the most common answer was some version of Robinson’s complaint about “‘unnecessary’ bureaucracy, and overly complicated organizational structures.”

While Robinson’s Federal Employee of the Year prize is the highest honor, the other winners also provide important stories of feds serving the public. The Partnership cited the following honorees and their accomplishments:

H. Clifford Lane, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is recipient of the Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement Medal because he has “had an enormous impact combating and treating infectious diseases overseas such as Ebola,” did critical HIV/AIDS research and helped set covid-19 treatment guidelines. “We are accountable to the American public and carry out our mission with that in mind …” he said by email. “In the right setting and with the right leadership and support, what one can accomplish as a federal employee is close to limitless.”

Amanda Cohn, Anita Patel and David Fitter, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are the recipients of the Covid-19 Response Medal, after designing and implementing distribution plans for hundreds of millions of coronavirus vaccines during the pandemic. “This work has saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” said Barbara Mahon, a CDC official with agency’s COVID-19 response team. “It’s a truly unprecedented and amazing accomplishment, and without the three of them and the teams they led, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Krista Kinnard, Labor Department, is the recipient of the Emerging Leaders Medal for igniting a “technology transformation” that saved time and money by automating repetitive administrative procedures. With her leadership at age 34, work that previously took 40 hours was cut to less than three minutes. “I love finding creative and innovative ways to solve hard problems and serve the workers and wage earners of our country …” she said. “I truly believe that for government to be able to continue to deliver on its mission in the 21st century, we must embrace technology so that receiving government benefits is as smooth of an experience as using a food delivery app on your phone.”

Barbara Morton, Department of Veterans Affairs, is the recipient of the Management Excellence Medal for her work in building trust among constituents and a customer-oriented culture in the department. “The fact that we collectively … have been able to move the needle on Veterans’ trust in VA is totally inspiring to me,” she said by email. “And my favorite thing is when a Veteran or family member share with me that VA is different than it used to be or from what they expected, and that they have had an incredible experience with us.”

Hilary Ingraham, Holly Herrera and Kiera Berdinner, Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, are recipients of the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal for coordinating “the largest resettlement of refugees in modern U.S. history,” by providing housing and services for more than 76,000 Afghans who fled their country last year as American forces withdrew. “The reality of this work at State is infinitely more complex, nuanced, and challenging than I could have ever imagined, but it is also incredibly rewarding,” Berdinner said. “This team is also comprised of the most dedicated, compassionate, intelligent, and mission-driven people I have ever had the pleasure of working with.”

Cindy Newberg, Environmental Protection Agency, is the recipient of the Science, Technology and Environment Medal for her “instrumental role” in curbing the use of hydrofluorocarbons, which are major contributors to climate change. “It is easy to think of climate change and become pessimistic …” Newberg said, adding “think about the small steps you can take to start tackling one part of the problem and then think about how you can leverage that small step into an even bigger step. My career has been about starting small and, as we succeed, finding ways to do more.”

Newberg also said, “I don’t think folks realize the dedication of federal employees.”

Government work “is often invisible to the public,” said Max Stier, the partnership’s president and CEO, “but the 2022 Service to America Medal winners place the spotlight on a wide range of remarkable success stories and defy the stereotypes of those who are dedicated to serving the nation and our collective interests.”

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