How one public servant’s strong self-awareness helped create a more nuclear-secure world
Becoming self-aware begins with an introspective understanding of your values, thought patterns and motivations, all of which are essential to personal development and better interactions with others. Self-awareness is an anchor, enabling you as a leader to stay true to yourself and perform at your highest level in service to the American public. The five subcompetencies to becoming self-aware include:Learn more
For decades, the federal government has worked to keep nuclear facilities around the world safe and secure. In the early 2000s, these efforts hit a snag when yearlong talks between the Energy Department and the Russian Defense Ministry stalled, leaving nuclear materials in the former Soviet country vulnerable to theft and misuse.
A dynamic federal leader finally broke the logjam: Nicole Nelson-Jean, a recently hired 28-year-old working in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Material Protection Control and Accounting Program. Soon after she joined the agency, Nelson-Jean became a critical member of the U.S. team that had been negotiating with Russian authorities. In just four months, she revived the stalemated talks and hammered out a landmark agreement that laid the groundwork for the construction of the Kola Technical Center, the country’s first nuclear training facility. Afterward, she received a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, a premier award that recognizes innovation and leadership in the federal government.
Nelson-Jean’s unique sense of self-awareness made this breakthrough possible. Despite being the youngest person and only woman of color on the team, she ably related her own experiences to those of her Russian counterparts, cultivating an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect that facilitated productive talks. The characteristics inherent in this approach—an authentic communication style, intellectual curiosity and an ability to self-reflect —have helped Nelson-Jean create a more nuclear-secure world throughout her nearly three-decade career in public service.
“When I’m presented with an opportunity, I accept it and I move forward. I think many times we limit ourselves and say, ‘I’m not sure if I’m ready for that. I’m not sure if that’s something that I can do, or if I have the educational background or the social background.’ None of that comes to mind when I am presented with opportunities. I say yes.” she said.
From the story: In what ways does Nelson-Jean’s approach to challenges reflect a strong sense of self-awareness?
For reflection: How might you strengthen your sense of self-confidence, even, or perhaps especially, when you have different perspectives or a different background than others in your workplace?
For action: What challenge are you facing now that you could turn into an opportunity for self-assured leadership?
Learning the field
Nelson-Jean did not envision a career in nuclear security growing up. As a college student, she knew little about nuclear issues or the country’s nuclear history.
But a passion for learning led her to quickly develop expertise on the subject.
During her undergraduate years, Nelson-Jean’s father—a former member of the Navy Construction Battalion—began working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a leading science and technology lab that helped develop atomic weapons during World War II.
During one visit, Nelson-Jean discovered Los Alamos had an internship program for college students. Seeking new opportunities, she applied to the program, was accepted and shortly thereafter organized Los Alamos’ first student-led organization.
Nelson-Jean said that scientists in the lab noticed her leadership skills and initiative. Eventually, she connected with a mentor who encouraged her to explore nuclear security work.
Nelson-Jean followed suit by researching Los Alamos’ history and the country’s nuclear strategy. Her first project—asking private citizens if the lab could access their property to do nuclear cleanup—sparked further curiosity about America’s nuclear past.
Later, Nelson-Jean went to Washington, D.C., to support her mentor’s work on a high-level Energy Department advisory committee. The experience enabled Nelson-Jean to see firsthand how her activities at Los Alamos helped strengthen the country’s national security. Understanding the broader impact of her work has motivated Nelson-Jean to take her responsibilities seriously and hold herself to high standards of integrity as a public servant.
“I was able to make that connection by physically being [in Washington, D.C.] and understanding how important [Los Alamos’ work] was for our nation. That’s really where I got the gravity of the work that we were doing,” she said.
From the story: How did Nicole’s curiosity benefit her? How did she continue to learn and be open to new challenges throughout her early career?
For reflection: When was the last time your desire to learn caused you to step outside of your comfort zone?
For action: How will you seek out opportunities to continually learn and grow?
The Russian negotiations
These experiences launched Nelson-Jean into her full-time position with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Material Protection Control and Accounting Program, which aims to secure and protect nuclear material in Russia and other former Soviet Union countries.
Once again, Nelson-Jean’s passion for learning enabled her to tackle new challenges.
As she researched the program, Nelson-Jean read about a failed agreement with the Russian Federation regarding its nuclear training facilities. She sent written comments to her immediate supervisor recommending the team organize face-to-face meetings with the Russian negotiators. Previously, the two sides had conducted all their meetings via phone, email or cable communication.
The suggestion underscored one of the core characteristics that has enabled Nelson-Jean’s success: a desire to listen to—and build trusting relationships with—people who hold different perspectives than she does.
“ We were talking past each other and not giving ourselves the ability to really listen. We were stating our demands, but not really listening to the other party,” she said.
Impressed by this fresh approach, Nelson-Jean’s supervisor sent the recommendations to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s assistant secretary, an expert on Russian security issues.
Initially, Nelson-Jean worried that her ideas would be rejected. “I was a little shaky because I was brand new and very young at the time,” Nelson-Jean said.
Instead, the opposite occurred: The assistant secretary agreed with Nelson-Jean’s suggestions and immediately included her on the Department of Energy’s negotiation team.
The lesson for Nelson-Jean was clear: Investigate new ideas and don’t be afraid to express them.
“That’s what really started me down this path—just sort of scribbling some recommendations on how to move forward,” she said.
Nelson-Jean’s supervisor told her to expect an icy reception from the Russian negotiators because she had a very different background than the seasoned Cold War veterans who comprised the Russian delegation.
But Nelson-Jean’s authentic communication style enabled her to defy the odds.
Throughout the negotiations, Nelson-Jean found common ground with her Russian counterparts by connecting her experiences to certain aspects of Russian life and culture. She talked about reading Dostoevsky in graduate school, for example, and discussed her father’s Navy career—something that the Russian team’s naval officers related to immediately.
“I find that, if you’re open, people will always find a way to connect with you. All you have to do is be open to finding that connection with them,” she said.
For Nelson-Jean, making these types of cross-cultural connections was nothing new. As the daughter of a military man who moved frequently, she lived in three different countries before arriving in the U.S. and attended eight high schools in five states.
These experiences provided Nelson-Jean with a unique ability to connect with people of diverse backgrounds.
“I appreciated diversity from an early age because I lived in so many different parts of the country and different parts of the world,” she said. “I just think that made me better at really listening and seeking to understand.”
Nelson-Jean’s negotiating skills and communication style helped her end the long stalemate. Within four months, she finalized an agreement with the Russian team that laid the groundwork for the construction on the Kola Technical Center, a joint training facility designed to help Russia better protect and inspect its nuclear material stockpiles.
Nelson-Jean attributes this success to forging an emotional connection with the Russian delegation.
“At the end of the day, it’s not so much what you say and how it comes out, but people remember how you made them feel,” she said.
From the story: How would you describe Nicole’s approach and strategy for building rapport with her counterparts in Russia? What assumptions did she test?
For reflection: How does one develop a strong sense of self? How might you challenge yourself to test your assumptions about others?
For action: How might you better use your emotional intelligence to get results? How might you seek out and embrace diverse opinions and perspectives?
Embracing new challenges
These qualities have enabled Nelson-Jean to tackle new challenges throughout her career.
After working in several posts overseas, she returned to the National Nuclear Security Administration to help run the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which helps manage the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile.
As part of this work, she oversaw the lab’s National Ignition Facility, the world’s largest laser system, which helps scientists observe how nuclear reactions occur. At one point, Nelson-Jean had to convince a worried public and skeptical policymakers that the facility could safely use plutonium for its work.
To do so, she and her team briefed officials at the departments of Energy and Defense, spoke with key members of Congress and conducted continual outreach with local residents. These conversations enabled the team to receive organized feedback about the project and develop an ongoing dialogue with its major stakeholders. The process took time, but Nelson-Jean considered it one of her fundamental responsibilities as a public servant. By being transparent and demonstrating integrity, she achieved the public buy-in that enabled her to achieve her mission.
“It took a lot of relationship building, listening, and understanding what the resistance was and why that resistance was there,” she said. “That supported us moving forward with our national security and stockpile stewardship mission.”
Later, Nelson-Jean managed the Savannah River Site, which processes, stores and disposes of nuclear materials and oversees waste management and environmental cleanup initiatives.
The move put her in charge of a large plant complex for the first time in her career—a new role that required her to follow strict production schedules and timelines.
To succeed, Nelson-Jean sought constant feedback from her staff about how the plant operated and dedicated herself to learning about her employees. As a result, she gained a better understanding of her new work environment.
“The idea of being self-aware was immediate walking into that job because I had to seek feedback on what was going on around me and with my staff,” she said.
After nearly three decades of government service, Nelson-Jean finds herself in another critical role. In August 2020, she became a senior leader responsible for overseeing field operations for Energy’s Office of Environmental Management, a position that requires her to manage 16 field offices, a $7.5 billion budget and more than 33,000 employees. It is the largest administrative challenge of her career.
Nelson-Jean plans to use her passion for learning, self-reflective attitude and authentic communication style to forge the types of relationships and bonds that have sustained her career. For her, these qualities are critical to effective public service. “Being open to connections and relationships are what help us succeed in whatever we need to do—whether it’s nuclear nonproliferation or building a shelter for homeless children,” she said. “The earlier in your career that you understand how relationships play such a critical role in your success and your ability to get things done, the better off you are.”
From the story: How did Nicole demonstrate integrity to partner with stakeholders?
For reflection: Which relationships could you strengthen at work to help you do your job better?
For action: How might you create an environment and forum for others to continually give you feedback? What benefit would that have?
To celebrate Public Service Recognition Week 2021, the Partnership named the finalists for this year’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals program. Like Nelson-Jean, they embody the core values of our Public Service Leadership Model and have pushed our government to new heights. Stay up to date on our annual “Sammies” program here.
The stewards of Medicare: How four public servants helped protect one of America’s signature health programs
Each year, phony Medicare claims cost the American taxpayer billions of dollars and deprive those eligible for coverage—senior citizens, and people with disabilities and serious illnesses—of proper health care. These fraudulent schemes turn Medicare, a historic federal program that insures more than 60 million Americans, into a personal piggy bank for private interests who prey on the vulnerable and exploit the public good.
One group, however, has protected this vital national asset with unprecedented success.
Since 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force has employed teams of investigators from the departments of Justice and Health and Human Services to prosecute Medicare’s worst abusers at every turn.
Operated jointly within the HHS and DOJ’s Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) program, the strike force began as a four-team pilot project run out of Miami, the epicenter of Medicare fraud in America.
More than that, it is a clear symbol of the results that federal employees can deliver when they uphold the oath of office, protect vital public resources and embrace the highest standards of professional integrity.
Below are 6 examples you can explore with questions to reflect on and consider:
Stewardship of public trust
Given the vast and unmatched influence, power and resources of our government, affecting the United States and the world, trust in federal leaders and their integrity is paramount. Federal leaders represent the American people and must be held to the highest standard. They are stewards of the Constitution, taxpayer dollars and the workforces they lead.Learn more
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
Passion for public service
Four federal investigators helped transform the strike force in its early years and represent the power of public service.
Omar Pérez Aybar of the Department of Health and Human Services, Joe Beemsterboer of the Justice Department, Daniel Bernstein of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and Randy Culp of the FBI had different specialties, worked in different agencies and took different paths to government work.
Inspired by his father’s career in the Navy and interested in criminal justice, Aybar participated in ride-alongs with the Virginia Beach Police Department before enrolling in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and working as a paid intern at HHS; Beemsterboer fell in love with government work during a law school internship with the U.S Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C.; Bernstein started as a paralegal in the private sector before shifting to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office; and Culp initially worked as a certified public accountant before a continuing education seminar on white collar crime organized by the FBI led him to apply for a job with the agency.
Despite these differences, however, these investigators were bonded by a commitment to protect taxpayer dollars and hold accountable those who cheat the government and line their pockets at the public’s expense.
“I don’t like cons, I don’t like cheats and I don’t like fraudsters,” Culp, a former supervisory special agent with the FBI, noted. “And I enjoy putting some of them behind bars and out of business.”
“These were educated doctors,” Beemsterboer, then assistant chief of the DOJ Fraud Section, said. “They could have done anything they wanted, but they decided to rip off the system. Those are my tax dollars, your tax dollars. That’s a big part of protecting the public trust.”
“Medicare,” said Bernstein, an assistant attorney with the South Florida U.S. Attorney’s Office, “is one of the best things the government has ever done for the people of this country.”
Taking down those who exploited the program, he added, made the work worthwhile. “It’s the greed,” he said when asked what angered him most about Medicare fraud. “Privileged folks do this.”
The impact of Aybar, Beemsterboer, Bernstein and Culp is undeniable. From 2008-2014, they forged a new model for interagency collaboration that enabled decisive legal action against Medicare fraud and helped return nearly $1 billion to the Medicare Trust Fund. Few have done more to protect one of America’s signature health programs.
From the story: How is stewardship illustrated in these individuals’ careers and motivations?
For reflection: Think back to when you took the oath of office. What did it mean to you then?
For action: How might you share stories of the important and impactful work of public servants?
Obstacles to collaboration
Launching the strike force was no easy task.
Each of its federal entities—the FBI, HHS, DOJ and U.S. Attorney’s Office—recognized Medicare fraud as a major problem in South Florida but worked along parallel tracks and ran up against limited resources.
“There were four separate entities all reporting to their respective management, even though we were all tackling the same issues,” Culp noted.
“And you don’t have unlimited resources to address every problem,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out how to staff each area—whether it’s drugs, human trafficking or violent gangs.”
With multiple agencies working together, strategic differences were also inevitable.
“Some agencies would say, ‘Listen, we need to produce a lot of cases quickly,’” Beemsterboer said. “Others would say, ‘Listen, we should do a few big impact cases.’ We needed to manage those tensions.”
At times, the agencies also worked unilaterally. When the FBI and DOJ excluded HHS from important decision-making processes and field operations, Aybar reminded his colleagues of the value his department brought to the team.
“I could appreciate that the FBI were the big dogs on the block and the DOJ had the prosecutors that were ultimately going to take the cases [we researched and investigated],” Aybar said. “But we were subject matter experts on health care fraud.”
From the story: How might these leaders have gone about creating a coalition? What advice would you give the strike force in this position?
For reflection: How does cross-agency collaboration enhance stewardship?
For action: In your own work, how might you build strategic coalitions to achieve better results?
Launching the strike force
To overcome these pitfalls, the agencies on the strike force had to work together to find common ground.
“We had to check our egos at the door,” Culp said.
Fortunately, the strike force’s structure enabled collaboration and teamwork.
To kickstart the new initiative, the DOJ provided the South Florida U.S. Attorney’s Office with additional trial lawyers to join new strike force teams. In return, the office lent its own major crimes attorneys to these teams as well. Both sets of lawyers then partnered with local HHS and FBI agents already investigating Medicare fraud in the area.
The arrangement benefited each agency on the strike force. The South Florida U.S. Attorney’s Office received new personnel, DOJ experimented with a new way to tackle Medicare fraud, and HHS and FBI agents gained easy access to prosecutors who would take cases to court.
As a result, strike force investigations were highly effective and efficient. Working together, agents and prosecutors investigated and filed cases quickly, avoiding the delays that typically occur when investigators have to pitch a case to an unknown district or U.S. attorney from afar.
On his first day on the job in 2010, Beemsterboer saw HHS and FBI agents, assistant U.S. attorneys and DOJ fraud section trial attorneys working together side by side in a large off-site facility.
It was an unusual arrangement, but Beemsterboer immediately saw the benefits.
“It made a lot of sense. We worked hand in hand, moved cases really quickly and had the ability to review evidence with each other. We were able to do so much more being in the same location.”
For Culp, the horseshoe seating arrangement at strike force headquarters enabled open discussion and information sharing.
“We didn’t have to hunt down prosecutors and try to sell them an investigation one at a time,” Culp said. “We all worked from the ground-up as a team.”
Working together also enabled the strike force to cultivate a culture of continuous learning.
Beemsterboer was new to health care fraud when he joined the strike force, but the group helped him get up to speed quickly.
“They were there to collaborate and help,” he said of his colleagues. “I didn’t know much about health care, but they helped bring me along right away.”
From the story: Based on what you know, what were the keys to these teams successfully working together?
For reflection: Why is it often difficult for agencies to work together?
For action: What challenges have you had working on interagency projects? How were you able to work through those challenges?
This collaborative environment produced fast results. Initially, the strike force investigated fraudulent Medicare schemes involving durable medical equipment and HIV infusion treatments.
In January 2008, the group charged six individuals with filing more than $50 million in phony Medicare claims for items such as nebulizers, wheelchairs, oxygen concentrators and hospital beds.
Later, the strike force took down a $100 million scheme involving 11 Miami clinics that filed false HIV medical infusion claims. In some cases, patients received a mix of vitamins and saline solution rather than any actual HIV medication.
Throughout, the investigators examined billing patterns, bank accounts and medical records to detect Medicare quickly and prevent further corruption. In one early case, this type of data analysis helped the strike force discover that the owner of a durable medical equipment company had stolen doctor and patient ID numbers to submit more than 4,000 Medicare claims for over $2 million in just three months.
The positive results enabled the strike force to expand.
“It seemed like the more success we got,” Culp noted, “the more agents we got and the more prosecutors we got.”
Aybar helped drive this change by advertising the strike force to other HHS agents and getting more agencywide buy-in.
“Part of my job was trying to get the rest of the agents who weren’t a part of the pilot project to rethink and reimagine how we go about investigations. We knew this was going to become a staple program, but we needed to make sure that all the partners saw it and really bought in,” he said.
From the story: How else might the team have shared their successes and gained additional buy in?
For reflection: How do successes like these strengthen the public’s trust in government?
For action: How might you build quick wins into your work? How do you share best practices and successes from your work?
For Aybar, driving this kind of change was nothing new.
Throughout his career, the twenty-two-year HHS veteran routinely made an impact by taking the initiative, building networks and committing himself to uphold the oath of office.
Aybar’s first assignment as an agent within the HHS’ Office of the Inspector General was to open up an HHS office in Puerto Rico, a difficult assignment for a 22-year old new hire living far from families and friends.
Aybar recalled the initial challenges of working amid difficult conditions in a country that lacked a robust health care system. The final straw was a large power outage that turned off his refrigerator and left him without food after a grueling day at work. Soon after, he called his supervisor and requested a transfer to work closer to home.
But the oath of office compelled Aybar to stay.
“I swore an oath,” he told himself. “They trusted me to do this and I need to make it happen. I’d be remiss if I didn’t leave my footprint on a place and try to leave it better than I found it.”
Eventually, Aybar turned the Puerto Rico outpost into the most productive HHS field office in the New York region. Laying out the office’s potential workload and impact to his supervisors, he hired a close-knit team of DOJ prosecutors and FBI agents that mirrored the Medicare strike force he would later join in Miami. The new professional network, built from scratch, offered camaraderie, community and shared sense of mission in a new work environment.
After 5 1/2 years, Aybar transferred to the New York field office. But he missed the unique chemistry he had developed with his team in Puerto Rico and found it more difficult to get his cases before a judge without a dedicated prosecutor.
“New York is the financial capital of the world,” he said. “There’s a whole host of crimes that, from a jury’s perspective, are much sexier – drug cases, violent crime cases, public corruption cases, insider trading cases. And here I am trying to present a health care fraud case. It was an uphill battle.”
So Aybar got creative, leading an undercover operation—then uncommon at HHS—to take down a pharmaceutical employee illegally supplying pills to several local pharmacies.
Operating in another new work environment, Aybar relied on the oath he took as a federal employee to stay motivated and achieve success.
“The work was still fulfilling,” he said, “because I kept thinking, ‘You took this oath to protect people. You need to do all you can to live up to that.’”
A year later, while preparing for a recruiting event at John Jay, Aybar came across a USAJOBS posting for a full-time position with the Medicare Fraud Strike Force in Miami. After inquiring about job specifics, and debating whether to uproot his family again and leave New York City, he accepted an offer to join the group in South Florida.
From the story: What values are embedded in Aybar’s remarks?
For reflection: What is unique about public service?
For action: What keeps you in public service?
Once there, Aybar employed the same mindset and strategies—taking the initiative and tapping into his professional networks—to make an impact as he did in his previous positions in Puerto Rico and New York City.
After two years, Aybar realized that the strike force, despite its early success, needed to tackle new and emerging types of fraud.
“We were getting results,” Aybar said. “But I said, ‘At some point, this is going to dry up.’”
He got his chance to lead the strike force in a new direction in 2010, when an analyst working for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services advised Aybar to investigate possible Medicare fraud at community mental health facilities.
Aybar invited the analyst to present the evidence to his supervisors, but they remained unconvinced by what they heard and balked at building a case.
But Aybar persisted, driven once again by his responsibility to serve and protect the public.
“These are folks with Alzheimer’s and dementia—people who are struggling and supposed to be receiving some type of mental health support so they can carry on their lives. We couldn’t leave the vulnerable population that way.”
He then seized an opportunity to turn a civil case on a related issue involving community health centers into a criminal case. To do so, Aybar made a smart personnel move, pairing two new eager strike force hires—a new HHS agent and a new DOJ prosecutor—together to investigate the issue.
“We were trying to capitalize on opportunities when they presented themselves,” Aybar said.
The aggressive approach paid off.
Within five months, the strike force had charged the American Therapeutics Corporation with operating an eight-year, $205 million scheme that involved bribing assisted living facilities to refer patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia to the company for unnecessary—and in some cases nonexistent—services.
In 2011, a judge ordered the company’s owner to pay more than $87 million and sentenced him to 50 years in prison, the longest sentence handed down on a Medicare fraud case at the time.
From the story: What would you do in Aybar’s situation? What points would you make to the skeptical bosses and how would you weave principles of stewardship into them?
For reflection: How does stewardship play a vital role in driving change in government?
For action: How might you take risks to maximize your impact?
Creating lasting change
By the early 2010s, the strike force hit its stride. With new cases came more press coverage and a greater public recognition that Medicare fraud was a serious problem.
“Eventually cases we’re doing ended up on the front of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times,” Beemsterboer said.
“We’d arrest a ton of people and the press would write about it,” Bernstein added.
The public spotlight made a difference.
In the early 2010s, Beemsterboer and Bernstein began to investigate fraud in Miami’s home health care agencies. The strike force eventually charged several owners with defrauding Medicare of $170 million. A judge sentenced the owners to between three and 10 years in prison.
In response, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services suspended new home health agency enrollments in the Medicare program in Miami for nearly six years, a move that drastically reduced home health fraud in Miami.
More recently, federal agencies replicated the strike force model to tackle the nation’s opioid epidemic. Within the four months, the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force had spearheaded the largest opioid takedown in U.S. history to date, charging 60 individuals across 11 federal districts with illegally distributing more than 32 million opioid pills.
Looking back, Aybar believes these successes demonstrated how federal employees who uphold their oath and protect the public interest can rebuild public faith in government.
“Conceptually, the strike force is embodiment of public service,” he said.
“The foundation of our work is the oath that we took. The impact is that we’ve shaped what John Q. Public thinks about when he imagines someone in government service. We were able to say, ‘We’re here to safeguard you, and all of the freedoms and benefits you expect this country to provide.’”
From the story: How are Aybar and his team upholding the values found in the Constitution? What factors led to the broader adoption of their model?
For reflection: How does public trust grow?
For action: Go back and read the oath of office again. What does it mean to you now?