Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology and Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology
Department of Commerce
Executive Schedule: Executive Level IV - Presidential Appointment with Senate Confirmation
- Oversee this non-regulatory agency that formulates federal standards for products from X-rays to automated teller machines
- Coordinate development and application of the technology, measurements and standards necessary for new products and services
- Recruit scientists and technicians to staff NIST laboratories
- Shape NIST’s budget and defend it before Congress
Key Competencies and Preferred Qualifications:
- Advanced scientific degree
- Background in running a sophisticated R&D operation
- Public sector experience
- Familiarity with Capitol Hill
The historical origins of the current National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) date back to the writing of the Constitution of the United States, which assigned the federal government responsibility “to fix the standard of weights and measures” for the nation. The National Bureau of Standards was formed in 1901. In 1988, the Bureau was renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In addition to its historical measurement role, the mission of NIST is to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology. In Fiscal Year 2010, the agency budget was approximately $1 billion, consisting of about $850 million in appropriated funds, $50 million in service fees, and $100 million in funding from other federal agencies. NIST employs 2,900 scientists, engineers, technicians, and support and administrative personnel. In addition, NIST hosts about 2,600 associates and facility users from academia, industry, and other government agencies.
There were really two beginnings for Patrick Gallagher. The first occurred in September 2008 when he was appointed Deputy Director while the Director position remained vacant. After carrying out the duties of Director for 13 months, he was nominated to be Director in October 2009 and confirmed by the United States Senate in November 2009. While he led the agency as Deputy Director, Gallagher recalls, “I didn’t want to do the traditional caretaker role, but I also didn’t want to make major decisions which might be binding on the new Director. But there were things that we could do. I knew that the next Director would need a management agenda,” so Gallagher set the stage for organizational change by improving management in areas such as safety. “A new Director would want the organization to be organized and effective,” says Gallagher. After being confirmed as the next NIST Director, he set out to create a plan for realigning the organizational structure of the agency.
The second beginning occurred after confirmation. “There was a greater sense of urgency about business after I got confirmed,” says Gallagher. “There were more committents, more media attention, and an increased level of activity. The confirmation impacted how I would spend my time and how I would manage.”
When Gallagher was appointed Deputy Director in September 2008, NIST faced the following issues common to many government science agencies:
• It had a historically low profile.
• Its mission was not always clear to the Administration’s political leadership and the agency’s relevance was frequently questioned.
• It had not been reorganized in over 20 years, since the 1988 legislation which renamed the agency and added several functions.
• It was facing the continued challenge of recruiting and retaining a world-class workforce.
After being selected as Acting Director, Gallagher set out to respond to this set of challenges.
Responding to the Challenge
By being appointed as Deputy Director in September 2008, Gallagher had the unique opportunity to prepare for the Presidential transition to start in November 2008 and to then participate in the actual transition from November 2008 to January 2009. “I participated in all the transition activities and the change in administration,” says Gallagher. “It was good to be starting at the same time as the new leaders. As a career person, I had good access to the new political leaders. I could interact with them on the major issues on their agenda. I felt comfortable with the political team. They viewed me as the ‘career guy’ with institutional knowledge. NIST had a clear role and an R&D agenda which I could communicate. But I also had to show people that the agency could execute.”
Based on his previous 15 years as a career scientist at NIST, Gallagher had a clear sense of where he thought the organization needed to go. “I knew that the agency had to be better organized and more effective,” reflects Gallagher. “I wanted to improve the stability of NIST. I thought it was unstable with a single Presidential appointee and a single Deputy Director. The previous NIST management structure had upwards of 18 line organizations all reporting to the Director or Deputy Director. In addition, NIST is like a national laboratory in many ways, but it wasn’t organized that way. The Director of NIST was like a weak mayor. It wasn’t working. We needed to remap the organization and we needed to improve customer service.”
Gallagher undertook the reorganization as a series of steps. The first step was to eliminate the Deputy Director position and create three Associate Directors: for Laboratory Programs, for Innovation and Industry Services, and for Management Resources. The number of NIST laboratory organizations was reduced from 10 to six and placed under the Associate Director for Laboratory Programs. The reorganization of the labs was done to increase both the mission and multi-disciplinary focus of each laboratory.
Implementing the reorganization required approval by the Department of Commerce and Congressional appropriations committees. The reorganization was a top priority for Gallagher during his first year in office. “The organization was supportive of the change,” he says. “It had been talked about for years and there was general recognition that the time had come to make the change. In the private sector, you can just come up with a plan, announce it, and then do it. Government is different. You need to invite participation. I shared our reorganization plan and met with NIST managers to discuss the reorganization. I invited everybody to comment on the plan. Things moved pretty quickly after this. I did learn the importance of engaging people on reorganizations. Nobody likes to be surprised. My rule was no surprises and we engaged people on it, including Congress which was very supportive.”
The reorganization was not just an “add-on” activity for Gallagher. It was central to his strategy to change the culture of NIST and to strengthen the organization to survive in the 21st century. Because of his interest in management, Gallagher made a decision early in his scientific career that he wanted to move into management, which resulted in his serving four years as Director of the NIST Center for Neutron Research. “I really do enjoy my management activities. My reorganization initiative did help the organization. It amplified my message about the need to change the organization. Through my management activities, I am trying to make NIST a world-class destination for scientists. Being a world-class place for scientists involves a whole set of issues and activities. The reorganization was never just about organizational structure or who reports to whom. It wasn’t about boxes. It was about getting the organization better aligned. We wanted to get the right people and align them in the new organization. Alignment was our larger goal. We need to reset the agency.”
The resetting of the agency involved moving away from an activity-based approach in the labs, which were organized much like academic departments in a university. “In that structure, our managers,” recalls Gallagher, “acted much like chairs of academics departments. We wanted to move toward a mission approach. Our historic mission is the metric system and we needed to align our activities with the mission.”
The increased mission focus and reorganization was clearly related to Gallagher’s goal to make NIST a good place to work and to enhance the organization’s external image, both within the Administration and the research community. “NIST is a very special place,” states Gallagher. “Researchers at NIST like their work and their mission. I wanted to restore the old sense of mission that the National Bureau of Standards had. Our efforts have brought more visibility to the organization. I’m pleased with the Administration’s interest in NIST. That happened faster than I thought. They were eager to place increased expectations and enhanced responsibilities on us. This is a change from the past when we had to explain our relevance to an administration.”
Reflecting on the Future of NIST
In the summer of 2011, three years after his appointment as Acting Director, Gallagher is now working on two scenarios for the future—one a growth scenario and the other a retrenchment scenario. Resources will likely become tighter for NIST and government’s other science organizations. “I’ve never managed in such a changing environment,” says Gallagher. “Two years ago, everything was on the upswing. Our budget was increasing and innovation was receiving a lot of attention. That turned out to be a snapshot in time. It’s hard to set direction when there is so much uncertainty.” While all government organizations will face the same uncertainty, Gallagher is convinced that NIST is better positioned to face that future, given the organizational and cultural changes that have taken place during the past two years.