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Outstanding public servants honored amid shutdown furloughs

October 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Partnership for Public Service honors outstanding achievements by civil servants. But this year, four of the nine honorees are furloughed due to the government shutdown. Jeffrey Brown talks to Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Kevin Geiss, the winner of the Management Excellence Medal.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a different kind of story about the government.

Every year, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service honors outstanding achievements by civil servants. This year, of course, that comes amid a government shutdown that’s affected hundreds of thousands of those workers.

Jeffrey Brown explains.

JEFFREY BROWN: The awards are known as the Sammies. The medalists are Tara Palmore and Julie Segre, who used genome sequencing to stop an infection from spreading through hospitals.

Orice Williams Brown worked on financial regulation matters in the aftermath of the 2008 Wall Street crisis. Andrew Rabens handles youth engagement for the State Department. Daniel Madrzykowski conducted research that improved firefighting techniques. John MacKinnon’s forensic work led to the arrest of 54 people involved in child pornography.

Hamid Jafari oversaw the delivery of polio vaccine to children in India. David Lavery was critical to the development of NASA’s Mars rover. Antonio J. Mendez helps free six diplomats trapped in Iran, and his story inspired last year’s Oscar-winning film “Argo.”

And joining me now is Kevin Geiss, the deputy assistant secretary for energy at the Department of the Air Force. He worked on alternative fuels and helped save more than $1 billion.

And welcome, and congratulations to you.

KEVIN GEISS, Air Force: Thank you, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, first, I think I want to ask, how does a person save a billion dollars? In layman’s term, what did you do?

KEVIN GEISS: Well, it takes innovation and dedication across the entire Department of the Air Force.

We have men and women who are pilots, aviators, civil engineers in jobs across the Air Force who come up with good ideas that we then demonstrate, build business cases, and bring to the forefront that we can execute across the Air Force to save those dollars.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in your case, what was the problem that you were trying to solve, that you brought all this thinking to?

KEVIN GEISS: Right.

So, Jeffrey, we spend in the Air Force about $9 billion a year on jet fuel and utilities for our installations. That’s two-and-a-half billion gallons of fuel. So when you look at what some of the big bills are in the Air Force, fuel and energy is certainly one of those.

So, as my office, which owns energy policy, looked at the challenge, we brought in experts and subject matter experts from across the Air Force to help us to identify areas for improved efficiencies and initiatives that we could put in place to help save that money.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the alternative energies that you were working on?

KEVIN GEISS: So, we have certified all of our aircraft fleet to fly on alternate fuels, both synthetic fuels, as well as biofuels. And we have also instituted over 50 alternate energy or renewable energy projects on our installations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does this have wider applications beyond the Air Force?

KEVIN GEISS: Absolutely.

And we also look to best practices from industry and in particular from our aviation operations. We have men and women in our reserves who fly for some of the large commercial airlines and cargo airlines that we tap into, and we bring those ideas into the Air Force to try and find opportunities for more potential efficiencies.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is your background? How does one come to this kind of work?

KEVIN GEISS: I — well, I am the first Air Force deputy assistant secretary. So there was no path to get here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you created it. Yes.

KEVIN GEISS: Well, it was created and I came into it.

But my background is in chemistry. I’m a scientist. And I think, as a scientist, that’s trained me to always ask questions, to be concerned about the limitations and issues and assumptions that we have in whatever technologies or programs that we have.

JEFFREY BROWN: The timing of this was coincidental, but here we sit, right, amid a government shutdown.

KEVIN GEISS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I understand that you are one of several of this year’s winners who are on furlough.

KEVIN GEISS: Correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: The disconnect must have hit you.

KEVIN GEISS: Well, I will say that I’m frustrated, because I joined the federal service in 2002 because I wanted to serve and my biggest frustration is that I am kept out of my office and kept from serving in the way that keeps me coming to the office everyday to do that job, the mission that we have in the Air Force to fly, fight and win in airspace and cyberspace, and everything that we can do with my staff and my office and partners across the Air Force to help save the Air Force money.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you — from where you sit, do you understand the — sometimes it’s vitriol that is aimed at federal workers? Do you understand where any of that comes from?

KEVIN GEISS: I have heard some of the comments folks make, but when I look at what we do in our office, what we do in the Air Force, our results speak for themselves.

We are — in 2012, we were hauling almost 20 percent more cargo in our aircraft and using 13 percent less fuel. So we have shown not only that we can do the mission, but we can do more mission and save energy doing it. On our installations, we have cut our overall energy consumption per square foot by over 21 percent compared to 2003.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were telling me before we started that you’re keeping busy even while you have these days on furlough.

KEVIN GEISS: Right.

Well, I am a squadron commander for a Civil Air Patrol squadron here locally, and we do emergency services, support homeland operations, and have a strong cadet program in our unit at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kevin Geiss is Air Force deputy assistant secretary for energy.

Thank you so much.

KEVIN GEISS: Thanks, Jeffrey.