October 2009 (Volume 18, Number 9)

# Inside the Beltway

## New Department of Energy Cast! Same Old Show?

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

The Obama White House has given the Department of Energy a superb gift. By appointing Steve Chu Secretary of Energy, Steve Koonin and Kristina Johnson, Under Secretaries for Science and Energy, and Bill Brinkman Director of the Office of Science, the President has arguably handed DOE the best scientific team the Department has ever had at its highest managerial levels.

Chu, a Nobel Laureate, is former director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory; Koonin is former chief scientist at BP and former provost of Caltech; Johnson is former provost and vice president for academic affairs of Johns Hopkins; and Brinkman, a past APS president, is former vice president for research at Bell Laboratories.

As Ira Gershwin’s 1930 Girl Crazy lyrics read, “Who could ask for anything more?” Well I could, and I do.

In Washington’s corridors of power, the Department of Energy has an extraordinary reputation, and it’s not extraordinarily good.

Ask any Capitol Hill staffer or Member of Congress to name the federal agencies with the worst reputations, and the two that surface most often are the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy. Years after their births–and in DOE’s case it’s been 32 years–they continue to exhibit behavior characteristic of children run amok.

Congress created both departments from mélanges of disparate federal programs and forced their often-incongruent cultures into unnatural cohabitation. The result: unwieldy bureaucracies, disruptive turf battles, and excessive stove piping. (There are some public servants who rise above the miasma –they know who they are–and I applaud them.) Add to these flaws, any one of which could be fatal by itself, a dash of political tone deafness, and you have a perfect prescription for Potomac dysfunctionality.

When Steve Chu took over the reins at the Energy Department’s Forrestal headquarters, no one questioned his extraordinary science credentials and his amazing ability to tackle complex science and technology problems. But amidst the euphoria accompanying the selection of the first science Nobelist to serve in a President’s Cabinet, there were the inevitable whispers, “Can he tame the DOE bureaucrats and create function out of dysfunction?”

Nine months into the effort, the feral DOE child is still fussing.  Chu has been inspiring and has set internal goals of streamlining operations and breaking down barriers. But, according to sources on the Hill, the Department’s behavior still smacks of remoteness, obfuscation, poor communication, and more than a modicum of arrogance.

In these regards, DOE seems out of step with the White House, which has worked hard to accord Congress appropriate respect as a co-equal branch of government.  To be fair, most members of Chu’s team have been in place for less than four months, and many policy positions still remain unfilled. Still there are signs that the new team may not be acting fast enough.