At the height of our nation’s economic crisis, 34-year-old Interior Department employee Mary Pletcher became the lead career executive for awarding and tracking $2.9 billion in economic stimulus funds used to preserve and restore iconic national treasures, provide vital infrastructure in impoverished Indian communities and create jobs.
Leading the largest single investment in public lands since the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal, Pletcher managed funds for some 4,000 projects ranging from major improvements to Ellis Island to the nation’s largest dam removal and natural habitat restoration project on the Elwha River in Washington State. Under her leadership, Interior met all of the requirements under the stimulus law on time, and with no significant instances of waste or fraud.
Picked for the job in 2009 because of her collaborative leadership style and project management skills, Pletcher faced a strict sixteen-month timeline, no standardized processes, little collaboration among the departmental bureaus and intense public scrutiny. Working with Secretary Ken Salazar’s senior advisor for economic recovery, she ensured that procurement activities were appropriate and transparent, funding was tracked, the risks were assessed and managed, and proper oversight was maintained.
“The size and complexity of the project, the high public visibility and the short completion schedule would have presented a significant challenge for even the most seasoned executive,” said Andrew Jackson, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services.
“Mary played a pivotal role in ensuring the funds were obligated in a way that was more transparent than we have ever done before,” said Jackson, “She is one of the hardest working career employees I have ever met.”
“When they asked me to lead the project, I said yes, and dove right in. I really enjoy challenging opportunities,” said Pletcher.
After seven years working for government contractors on information technology issues, Pletcher joined the federal civil service in April 2006. With less than three years’ at Interior, Pletcher took charge of the stimulus project by establishing regular bureau coordinator meetings that allowed previously stand-alone bureaus to share resources and solve challenges in a collaborative environment.
“There are strong bureaus in the Department of the Interior—they tend to want to solve their problems themselves. The economic recovery act provided a unique opportunity for bureaus to work together,” Pletcher said.
Pletcher helped establish the approach for selecting projects based upon readiness and alignment with strategic goals, and set up processes to ensure project and program coordination. Working collaboratively with stakeholders across the department, she also established Interior’s recipient reporting program, achieving a 99 percent compliance rate for recipient reporting.
“She created from nothing a system to measure performance,” said Pam Haze, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, finance, performance and acquisition. “She worked with the contracting and finance people to put in place the contract reporting and recipient reporting.”
The economic stimulus funds provided work for thousands of people while making a lasting impact on America’s public lands, empowering Native American communities and improving water infrastructure.
The funding has improved educational facilities for hundreds of K-12 students on the Navajo and Crow Creek Indian reservations, including a new school under construction on a reservation in Buffalo County, S.D., the poorest county in the United States. Funding also has been allocated to provide drinking water to more than 27,000 people in eastern Montana who currently are dependent on poor quality water supplies.
An additional project will alter the operation of a dam on the Sacramento River to allow unimpeded migration of about 42,000 endangered Chinook salmon. Yet another will replace a polluting diesel generator with solar power to provide electricity on Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Prior to handling the economic stimulus finding, Pletcher in 2008 served as the department’s information technology capital planning program manager, and was selected for Interior’s Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program. At 31, she was the youngest participant in the program.
As the work from the stimulus law began to wind down, Pletcher moved to Interior’s National Business Center, where she served as the acting director. With an annual budget of $400 million and nearly 1,100 employees, the center provides shared services across the federal government to improve operational efficiency and effectiveness. Applying her recent experience bringing together agency bureaus, Pletcher is eager to foster the same collaboration between agencies.
Whatever the task, Haze noted that Pletcher is careful with funding and management and is committed to the public good. “She is very energetic, very creative,” said Haze. “She is a natural leader, and she has this very deeply imbedded sense of public service.”