‘Serve your country – you will never regret it’: listen to GGF’s latest Leading Questions podcast with the White House’s Noreen Hecmanczuk

By on 04/05/2023 | Updated on 04/05/2023

In the first of our Leading Questions podcasts to feature an American federal government leader, Noreen Hecmanczuk reflects on a long and diverse career in public service – a career built on one enduring goal: to help her colleagues succeed in improving the lives of fellow Americans.

The senior adviser on strategic engagements and communications to the US federal CIO, Noreen is based at the White House, right at the heart of government. But having worked at nine agencies and for six administrations – and in a range of roles from strategic communications to stakeholder engagement, HR to technology – she has a very well-rounded perspective on government operations.

Her career began in the early 90s when, having graduated from college, she decided to take her first job in Washington D.C. Standing in the driveway of her parents’ home in rural Pennsylvania ready to leave for the capital she remembers her uncle – a WW2 veteran who’d instilled in her a sense of the importance of public service – saying “don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re making the wrong decision”. And make the wrong decision she did not.

Raised by “the most phenomenal leadership team”, her parents, who had high expectations of her, Noreen pushed to better her experience at every turn. In her early career in a congressional affairs office at the Department of Agriculture, for example, she volunteered to take notes at a weekly meeting of food standards senior executives, just as the country was dealing with a serious E. coli outbreak. “People were dying… and leaders were under tremendous pressure to modernise the food inspection programme,” she recalls.

Volunteering was, she says, a “way for me to contribute, to meet the senior leadership team and understand who they were and the issues that they were tackling… to keep my finger on the pulse of agency policy and our priorities. It was a way for me to do my job better… and a source of pride as a young staff member.”

There were other moments in her early career that cemented approaches to her work that have endured to this day. Whilst at the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, Noreen recalls the empathy she felt for a colleague who had to watch the bodies of two workmen being recovered after the collapse of a pit.  

In every job since, she was shown a dedication to understanding her colleagues’ needs and how she might help meet them.

“Really get to know your colleagues, really get to know where they’ve been on their journey, really try to get to know they things that they’re tried to do before you arrived and why they didn’t work,” she advises.

She also draws on a phrase used by her boss, the US federal CIO Clare Martorana, that “people support what they helped create”.

“Bring people along on the journey and they will help you as a team get to the next location,” Noreen says.

Thinking big

Reflecting on her leadership style, she emphasises that leaders should not confuse their role with that of a subject matter expert.

Indeed, she wishes other leaders had the opportunity she had, while on a White House development programme, to be put in an office and on an assignment that had no correlation with her prior experience.

It taught her to “listen to your people who have the subject matter expertise around you. Help block and tackle for the team so they can succeed”.

Throughout her career, Noreen has kept one Teddy Roosevelt quote front of mind: Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. “I tried to do my best to do just that,” she says. And that involves pushing the envelope. “If we are not thinking big to deliver for the millions of people relying on us – what a missed opportunity. Let’s think big. What’s the worst that can happen?”

This thinking is key to her current role, in which she and her team aim to deliver a “simple, seamless and secure experience” to citizens in their interactions with government in four main ways: by improving cybersecurity, modernising technology, delivering better public-facing digital service, and using data as a strategic asset.

Also touching on the particulars of the American system, the importance of learning from other departments and countries, identifying citizens’ pain points, and leading teams against a backdrop of rising mistrust in government, this is an episode brimming with insight from a public servant whose work always comes back to one thing: resolutely serving the American people as best she can.

This is the second episode of Leading Questions Series 3. The first featured South Africa’s cabinet secretary Phindile Baleni: ‘Unless you fight for it, it’s not worth it once you get there’.

Future episodes in this series include New Zealand’s former state services commissioner Iain Rennie; the UK’s former health department permanent secretary Una O’Brien; and Israel Pastor Sainz-Pardo, deputy director of learning at Spain’s National Institute of Public Administration.

Listen to all episodes of Series 1 & 2 here: Leading Questions podcast: civil service leaders share what they learned from their time at the top.

We are searching the globe to find the best examples of public sector leadership for Leading Questions Series 3. If you’d like to recommend someone to feature in a future episode, please get in touch.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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