This is the second in a series of profiles of innovative leaders in government based on interviews by the authors Paul R. Lawrence and Mark A. Abramson for the book “Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government.” The book highlights the management lessons of 24 political executives during their first two years in the Obama administration.

Historically, a major criticism of government has been that it consists of individual government agencies (often called stove-pipes or silos) which tend not to work very well with other agencies, even those within their own department.

When she arrived at the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan found some truth in this criticism of government. Many agencies within USDA viewed themselves as somewhat independent of the Office of the Secretary.

“Historically, the power in the bureaucracy has been in the hands of agency administrators,” says Merrigan, once an agency administrator herself. “Administrators run their own budget, Congressional outreach, and public affairs offices.”

A major stumbling block to innovation in government has been this tendency for each government unit to do “its own thing,” independent of each other. Thus, while these units could achieve their individual missions, they often had difficulty in achieving cross-departmental goals or missions.

To achieve departmental missions, it is necessary to create new mechanisms which cut across agency boundaries. One such mechanism is cross-cutting departmental (or government-wide) initiatives to achieve a specific mission.

During the Obama Administration, the Department of Agriculture has been seen as a leader in developing and fostering such initiatives. At Agriculture, leading such initiatives became a significant component of the job of Deputy Secretary Merrigan. In addition to her ongoing budget and management responsibilities, Merrigan played leadership roles in two major departmental initiatives: the Healthy Kids Initiative and the Know Your Farmer initiative.

In describing the Healthy Kids Initiative, Merrigan says, “This was a USDA-driven and White House-orchestrated interdepartmental effort to improve the health of children by combating both obesity and hunger. The First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign and passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in December 2010 are direct results of this early effort. Major reforms are now underway that will improve school meals and increase the availability of healthy food options in neighborhoods. We are all working with the First Lady to achieve the Administration’s goal of ending childhood obesity in a generation.”

The second of the department’s major initiatives is Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2), which highlights the critical connection between farmers and consumers. Launched in September 2009, this department-wide initiative is aimed at carrying out the President’s commitment to locally grown food by strengthening local and regional food systems. “The initiative enabled us to reach out to different constituents and it has taken off like wildfire,” says Merrigan.

An innovative feature of this initiative is that it has no office, budget or staff dedicated to it. The initiative was created to coordinate the Department’s vast resources and expertise on local and regional food systems across its 17 agencies.

Instead of creating a new office, Merrigan organized the initiative through a cross-department task force, with every USDA agency represented on it. Merrigan chairs the task force, which meets every two weeks and is made up of career mid-level managers who voluntarily add the KYF2 work to their regular work assignments. The task force is charged with breaking down bureaucratic silos, developing common-sense solutions for communities and farmers, and fostering new partnerships inside USDA and across the nation.

“This initiative, fostering local and regional food systems, will live beyond me and this particular Administration because we created cross-agency energy and engaged and empowered staff. People tell me that this management effort has been transformative and that they are enjoying their jobs now more than they have in years, even though in total, they are being asked to do more.”

Since its creation, the initiative has continued to expand. On February 29, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Merrigan unveiled the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass. The KYF Compass is an interactive web-based tool which highlights departmental support for local and regional food projects and successful producer, business and community case studies. The Compass includes an interactive U.S. map which shows local and regional food projects in all 50 states, with accompanying case studies, photos, and video content.

In launching the Compass, Deputy Secretary Merrigan said, “By encouraging all American to know their farmer, USDA is helping consumers learn more about agriculture and people producing your food. The KYF2 initiative helps farmer and ranchers tap into a vibrant, growing market opportunity. And it’s also stimulating a broader national conversation about where our food comes from and how important agriculture is to our country.”

As a follow up to the February 29th launch of the Compass, Deputy Secretary Merrigan conducted a virtual town hall meeting on March 5 to further publicize the KYF2 initiative. The meeting was streamed live at, with questions coming from virtual participants via twitter (#KYF2). Participants could also watch the town meeting on Facebook and submit comments.

As government continues to search for ways to innovate within the traditional bureaucracy, the use of cross-department or cross-government initiatives may increase in the years ahead. There is much to be learned from the Department of Agriculture about how to organize and foster such initiatives, without creating a new mini-bureaucracy to manage it.

Paul R. Lawrence is a principal at Ernest & Young LLP and a leader in the government and public sector practice. Mark A. Abramson is president, Leadership Inc.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Glassman