Building Bridges to Better Infrastructure
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Building Bridges to Better Infrastructure

Since November 2021, public servants have collaborated across state, local and federal government to implement the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—a once-in-a-generation investment of $1.2 trillion to repair, renew and reinvigorate the country’s aging infrastructure. Asma Mirza joins “Profiles in Public Service” as a deputy for implementation management at the White House, where she supports senior advisor to the president, Mitch Landrieu, on carrying out the new infrastructure law. To date, 37,000 projects and $280 billion and counting have been implemented across 4,500 communities in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. territories. Kevin Donahue, the city administrator for Washington, D.C., has worked with Mirza and her team at the White House to implement a more equitable infrastructure within the city, including through the creation of the D.C. Build Back Better Infrastructure Task Force. Mirza and Donahue discuss how federal leaders are convening state and local actors to transform our nation’s physical infrastructure, improve access to high-speed internet, tackle the climate crisis and more. 

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Rachel Klein-Kircher: 

From the Partnership for Public Service, this is Profiles in Public Service—a podcast that shares the stories of the public servants who work on our behalf every day to make our country safer, healthier and more prosperous. 

We talk to career public servants, emerging leaders, and others to better understand what it means to be a public servant… the incredible variety of careers possible in government… and how public service impacts all our lives.  

I’m your host, Rachel Klein-Kircher. 

Kelly Shih:

And I am Kelly Shih, Rachel’s guest host for today’s episode and a senior manager at our Public Service Leadership Institute.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher:

This season, we are bringing listeners on a journey filled with stories of federal service and community impact. Our current series of episodes includes both public servants and those who have directly benefitted from their leadership and innovation to demonstrate what it takes for our federal government and its wide network of regional partners to effectively serve the people.  

During this episode, we will hear about how public servants are collaborating across state, local and federal government to implement the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—a once-in-a-generation investment to repair, renew and reinvigorate the country’s aging infrastructure.  

Since the law’s enactment just 18 months ago, the Biden administration has announced $220 billion in funding, and over 32,000 projects across 4,500 communities in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. territories. 

Kelly Shih:

We are joined by Asma Mirza, a deputy for implementation management at the White House, where she supports senior advisor to the president, Mitch Landrieu, on carrying out the new infrastructure law.  

Since 2010, Asma has worked under three presidential administrations, most recently serving as the chief of staff for the COVID-19 Response Team.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher:

We will also hear from Kevin Donahue, the city administrator for Washington, D.C., who has worked extensively with Asma and her team at the White House. In his role, Kevin advises Mayor Muriel Bowser on strategies for implementing a more equitable infrastructure within the city, including through the creation of the DC Build Back Better Infrastructure Task Force. 

Kelly Shih:

Asma and Kevin will discuss how federal leaders are convening state and local actors to transform our nation’s physical infrastructure, expand access to broadband internet, tackle the climate crisis and more. 

Let’s turn now to this wonderful conversation. 

Kelly Shih:

Hi, Asma. We’re so excited to have you today. I first want to thank you for your public service and say that we’ve been really grateful at the partnership to have you as a friend in our work most recently speaking to our SAGE’s or our Strategic Advisors to Government Executive’s last fall about the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and for all of your support and our efforts around presidential transition. So, to start off today, I want to rewind and ask what inspired you to pursue public service and work for the federal government? 

Asma Mirza:

Well, first of all, Kelly and Rachel, thank you so much for having me, and thank you for all that you do with the Partnership. It’s been great to be a partner with you for, for many, many years now. Well, to rewind, I think we have to go back to the very, very beginning. My mom was a doctor in Pakistan. And when she married my dad and moved to the U.S., her degree didn’t transfer. She was learning the system. She didn’t have a support system to be able to work and have four kids at the same time. And so, she had to give up her career as a doctor and she used it instead, her passion for helping other people, to start her own nonprofit that was focused on helping at the time, refugees from Bosnia, but also help women who are coming out of domestic violence situations to escape those and working with interfaith partners and, and making all that happen. So I grew up, you know, going with my mom to visit a refugee family in an apartment that had very little, or going with her to a hospital to visit a patient. 

So I grew up with this heavy sense of service from a young age. And then my dad was a physicist turned businessman. So I grew up going with him to factory floors and seeing how to make things work and be more effective and efficient. So I had these two sides of me growing up, but I kind of fell into public service. I was working in consulting and got a chance to work with the Office of Management and Budget or OMB. On a project and just felt like these two sides of me finally came together where I could think about how I could be a person trying to make things better in the world, but also do it while thinking about effectiveness and efficiency and, and making an organization work well. 

Because if you believe in government, then the government should work well and serve all of the people that it, that it’s intended to serve. So that’s how I got into public service. 

Kelly Shih:

I love that story, thank you so much for sharing that. So you’ve done a lot since then. So since your time at OMB, you’ve had a lot of different roles. So from then till now, can you talk to us a little bit about how you ended up here doing the work you’re doing now? 

Asma Mirza:

So I ended up staying and working at the Office of Management and Budget for most of the Obama administration working on big government-wide management improvements. Everything from the performance management framework that we use in government to set goals and hold ourselves accountable to infrastructure permitting, how do we get things permitted faster, but while also protecting the environment. To the 2016 transition. And then went to McKinsey and Company where I got a chance to work as a consultant serving federal, state, and local clients on big changes that they were trying to make. And then I got a call asking if I wanted to help with the Biden – Harris transition team on the personnel team. Then candidate, Biden, asked us to have more appointees on day one than ever before. Given what he was walking into and to have it look like America. And we were able to do that. We had more appointees on day one than the past four transitions combined. And it was a really exciting to be part of that. From that I got reconnected with some old Obama colleagues and became the chief of staff of the Covid-19 team. Which was such an honor to be able to serve on such an important issue at an important time on this issue facing our country. Then the president passed the bipartisan infrastructure law, a huge generational investment in our country’s infrastructure, and they asked me to come over and be the deputy and work for Mitch Landrieu, who has incredible experience rebuilding the city of New Orleans after Katrina and getting things done on the ground and it’s been so great to get a chance to work with him on this. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher:

So you mentioned Asma being chief of staff of the White House Covid-19 response team and then here comes Mitch Landrieu, senior advisor to the president, and he said, “Hey, come do this with me.” and so he is recruiting you to be a deputy to lead implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. 

Also known as you said, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Well, this covers a massive list of priorities. So big, and I noticed as you were talking about it, you really lit up, which is really exciting because I imagine to take on something so big, you have to be very into it. So, what is one of the accomplishments that you are proud of during your time working with the infrastructure implementation team? 

Asma Mirza:

There are so many things that I’m proud of and first of all I should say this is a team sport. I’ve got great co-deputies, Samantha Silverberg and Ryan Berni, who I work with on the team, as well as a great group of people that we work with. I think one of the first things that we did is that we stepped back and said, how do we want to manage this law? 

Let’s not just run straight into the fire, but let’s ask ourselves, what does good management look like for a $1.2 trillion bill that literally touches, you know, over 10 agencies and departments, every state and county in America is going to be affected by this bill. How do we want it to look? One of the first things we did is that we put out a guidebook to say, here’s what’s actually in the bill. Here’s one page about, what is the program? Who can apply? How much money is it? Because as Mitch likes to say, you shouldn’t need a lobbyist to access your government, and what we heard from so many people is they didn’t even know where to start. How do they get funding for clean water? How do they get funding for broadband? How do they get funding for the bridge that they’re trying to fix in their city or town that has been neglected for decades? So we just wanted to make it really easy for people to access the bill and understand how to make it real. On top of that, we just worked with community after community to think about what do they need and how do we help get it to them. 

You know, Mitch went to Lowndes County, Alabama, which lacks a wastewater system, like they don’t have a system that is actually cleaning their wastewater, so it backs up on people’s bathtubs .They dump raw sewage into the neighborhood forest and it’s created, not only huge public health problems, but diseases have come back, like gangrene, in the city because they don’t have access to clean water. Mitch went down there and said, “Hey, we’re going to help.” And the EPA has launched a technical assistance program where they’re helping 10 communities, including this place, get what they need in order to get clean water.  

It’s a little hard to tell that story because like, this is America and there are still parts of our country that don’t have clean water or roads or high speed internet. I mean we worked with so many families during Covid and to know that there were families out there who didn’t have access to high speed internet while their kids were trying to do remote learning, or they were trying to do work, or buy things online is such a shame. So I’ve been excited that we not only made it really easy for people to access the bill, but then we’ve been working community by community to help them get what they need. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher:

I really appreciate that you said, you know, we didn’t just run straight into the fire because like what a big opportunity this is that could also have been wasted and lost if the approach wasn’t as thoughtful, and so often you hear people say, but I don’t have time to be strategic. But that also could then lead to a failed moment. 

It’s so interesting to hear like the thought that goes into it and the realization that you’re touching each community as you can, and each one, the needs might be different. And it includes actually going down and having a conversation in the community that you’re trying to serve to see what it is that they need. I imagine there were all kinds of challenges, so I’ll pass it to Kelly for the next question about that. 

Kelly Shih:

Thanks, Rachel. I totally agree that having that intentional time to really think about management and take a pause before running into it, something we definitely advocate for whenever we talk to leaders, but I know that with something so big, and even if you anticipated a lot of things, you can’t anticipate everything. So, what were some of the major challenges that you had to overcome so far as you’ve been implementing the Infrastructure Act? 

Asma Mirza:

Yeah, I think the size and scope of the infrastructure bill is massive. And so how do we think about touching all the right stakeholders? How do we think about bringing them in? Which again, the answer was good management. So we think about our goals in three buckets. One is delivering results to people, building the team so we can get this done, and then telling the story. I think we really had to spend a lot of time on the building the team bucket in order to get the other two right. So we created a management structure to help get this done, so we have weekly calls with agencies to talk through kind of what’s happening and make sure we’re all coordinated. We asked every governor and head of territory to appoint an infrastructure coordinator so we had like the one person we could call when we needed to work through problems and issues, and it’s been really great because we have monthly calls with them so that they can hear from us, we can hear from them. 

That intentionality with state and local governments I think has been so important because at the beginning when we were getting started, we didn’t know, who do we call? How do we make sure agencies are doing what they’re supposed to be doing? How do we make sure that we as the White House are giving them what they need to succeed? Most of this money, 90%, of it is not being built by the federal government. It’s being built by state and local government. So they’re the ones who are building the bridge or the road, and how do we make sure that they have what they need? So, I think at the beginning we were just trying to figure out like how do we all work together to implement $1.2 trillion and having those points of contacts, that regular cadence, that predictability, and just being really focused on problem solving. So, when a state does raise their hands saying, “Hey, I don’t really understand how I’m supposed to do this thing that you’re asking me to do,” we’re able to serve and support them. So I think just getting our hands around like how do you implement something so big, was the challenge at the beginning. It’s been incredible to think about the team, not just as the federal government, but the state and local governments as well, and how do we all have one team, one fight? 

Kelly Shih:

I definitely want to come back to the state and local governments because that’s where we’re going. But I also want to go back to you were saying there were these three main parts way you thought about it. So delivering results, building the team, and telling the story. Were there other challenges that you ran into kind of in one of those other two buckets around results or telling the story that you want to share? 

Asma Mirza:

Yeah, I think there were challenges across all of them that we’ve thankfully been able to overcome. I think, in delivering results, our goal in the first year was really about how do we get the money out the door and be really thoughtful about how we’re designing the programs. If we just put more money into the same way the federal government’s doing what it’s doing forever, it may not have the kind of transformational result that we wanted to have with the infrastructure law. So, really the question there was like, how do we run a process to design all these programs? How do we get the money out the door really quickly? And today we’ve had over $200 billion announced and on its way to states. So we’ve been able to get through kind of those early days challenges. And we already have over 23,000 projects and awards affecting over 4,500 communities across the country. 

 So we really wanted to move fast to get people the money so they can do the hard work of, you know, building all the things. In telling the story, as a federal government, we don’t always do a good job talking about the impact that we have, which, you know, people want to see results from their government. They want to trust their government, and so, seeing the results and hearing about them are really important for people to understand how their taxpayer dollars are being used and the results that are being delivered. So telling the story, we don’t always do a good job as a federal government of lifting up the impact that we’re having on people. And one of the challenges there is that we don’t always talk about our results in a human centered way and thinking about the person who, at the end of the day is going to have their lives improved because of the work that we’re doing. So I think the challenge for us on telling the story was building that muscle of how do we talk about real people and the way that we’re impacting their lives. 

 It’s been incredible to hear the stories on the ground. We had this effort we’re working on clean water and replacing lead pipes, which as you all know, is very detrimental, especially for children in their health, to have in consuming any amount of lead. It can affect their IQ development, it can affect their math and science scores, and traditionally these are low income students who are already facing challenges when it comes to getting a good education and then they can drop back and fall farther behind if they are drinking water from their faucet that has lead in it. So, we get a chance to meet with Diana Branch, who’s this woman who’s been working on this effort, and talk a little bit about her son and the lead poisoning that he had had. The president also recently went to Pennsylvania and met with a mom whose daughter was poisoned just by, drinking the water in their house. And so getting a chance to really talk about how we want to prevent those problems, solve those problems has been an important, I think, learning process for all of us. 

Kelly Shih:

So I want to go further into this work with local governments and the community task forces across the country. You’ve talked about this a little already in terms of telling the story. So I want to see if you want to expand on any of that in thinking about how does your collaboration specifically with these local governments and community task forces across the country help build that trust in government? 

Asma Mirza:

I think a couple things. I think one is that we know that the success of the state and local governments is our collective success. The infrastructure bill will only be successful if state and local governments are able to get the projects done that they’re trying to get done and have the information to be strategic and thoughtful about the multiple investments in their community, how they relate, how it relates to the broader plan that they’re having at a local level. So I think one, we’ve been really intentional about having a regular cadence of communication with state infrastructure coordinators. But also, Mitch will go to every, you know, city council conference any time we have state local officials coming together to talk to one, to make sure that they are hearing directly from the White House what our priorities are and what we’re doing and what’s coming down the pike. What’s the next funding opportunity that they can apply for. But also to hear feedback because there are times when people are trying to get stuff on the ground and we can make their job easier or harder as a federal government, and we want to hear the opportunities and the way that we can be helpful. So I think that regular cadence has been important. I think engaging with people directly to understand their priorities and what they’re trying to do. And then also, we’ve been trying to put out a lot of resources to help people on the ground get things done. 

So, we regularly publish a blog of the upcoming funding opportunities so that people can get ready so they know what’s coming, they can decide what to apply for. We’ve done a guide on technical assistance and what are the opportunities that the federal government has to help guide you in something that you’re trying to get done or a funding opportunity you’re trying to learn, because people don’t always have the technical background when it comes to doing some of these projects. So we as a federal government can be helpful. And then also we’ve been working with outside partners who’ve really come to the table and said, “Hey, we know state and local governments are really overwhelmed, how can we help?” And so we’ve seen organizations like Bloomberg’s Infrastructure Hub with a series of other funders come to the table and say, “Hey, we’re going to provide grant writers, we’re going to provide best practice sharing, we’re going to help people on the ground get this done in a really thoughtful and strategic way.” 

Rachel Klein-Kircher:

Let’s turn now to one of those people on the ground, Kevin Donahue, the city administrator for Washington DC to hear how the infrastructure law is being implemented at the local level.

Kevin, thank you so much for being here. And I have to say, as a resident of the DMV since 1993, I really appreciate your service to the DC government. 

Kevin Donahue: It is great to be here. Thank you for being a resident of the DMV for that long. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Yeah, so let’s get right into it. So the district is expected to receive more than $3 billion over the next five years, and while for some of our listeners that sounds like nothing but great news, that is a lot of money to administer in what isn’t really that long of a time. So from your perspective, what impact has the White House implementation team had on your office’s ability to do your work and serve the DC community given this, you know, $3 billion funds coming your way? 

Kevin Donahue: You know, you framed it well. It’s a lot of money that can do a lot of good in the city of D.C., and actually not a lot of time. So before any money came to us, the mayor asked us to set up a task force to prepare ourselves for the inevitability of being able to receive both formula grants and competitive grants through this infrastructure law. 

 As part of the task force, there was a group of people that was both government and non-government. We had subcommittees with the task force and we looked at what can we substantively do with funding that can really make sure we make the most of this historic opportunity. Well, how can we transform ourselves looking at plans, projects, vision that really with local funds alone, we probably would not be able to achieve. And second, at administratively what would we have to do internally to be able to prepare our bureaucratic processes to be able to receive the funds, get them out the door and get shovels in the ground so D.C. residents could see the benefit of it as quickly as possible. And that meant both looking at like how we staff ourselves and  looking at our own laws, our own internal processes, so we could prepare ourselves for what is really in the world of infrastructure, relatively short timeframe to make a big impact. What laws we have, and do we have to adjust laws or processes to be able to allow for these funds to come in.  

That really set us up to be able to respond quickly, both for the formula funding that we were getting, and prepare ourselves to apply aggressively for competitive grant opportunities as they became available. And one of the things to your question about the implementation support we’re getting, whenever I talk to the individuals who really work from both on the formula and competitive side they praise the responsiveness of both the White House team and the individual agencies that provide quick answers, clear answers, helpful advice so we best position ourselves to know what the rules are, what the allowability of different ideas are for the funding, and how to really go after competitive grants. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: I love this allowability of ideas and I imagine that there were many. So is there a memorable story or experience to share that does demonstrate the impact of the infrastructure law from all of these multitude of ideas, that really helped the community or, or is on its way to helping the community?  

Kevin Donahue: Oh yeah, I think at one level, the infrastructure law let us think much bigger than we allowed ourselves to think without it. So it’s not that the problems changed, the challenges changed, but how long we allowed people to think in terms of the duration of what the ambition was really opened up a lot of doors in people’s minds about what they could put on the table. 

So to give just two examples that represent a number of different creative avenues that we took, one was recognizing that DC like many urban areas is plagued by a highway that split up two communities that’s located in a part of DC that is historically black and really separates communities that need to be interconnected. And so it really allowed us to think about what can we do for about the 295 Quater? How do we start planning for that? This is without knowing whether we are going to receive a grant yet for this, what the amount would be but it allowed people to think about what would be required to be able to really connect these communities that historically have been split by highway infrastructure. So that is one like really specific example that this whole process let people think creatively allowed them to think with an ambition that I think when we only looked at local revenue alone, we may have gone in that direction. So that is one area.  

The other area that we really took an exciting and good look at really was a challenge for the city is that a number of our residents, and this is exemplified during when folks had to be in their homes during Covid, the accessibility to affordable high quality wifi. So it allowed for us to think about if we had a significant investment, what could we do to allow for every household in DC, regardless of income to be able to have access to high quality, low cost wifi connections, so they could work remotely, they could go to school remotely whenever they need to. And we brought forth ideas that just weren’t there when we were thinking of just the resources that we had available to us without the bill. And again, this is often not knowing what we were going to get because that’s when the creativity was there and there was an idea put forward that the city. Which already has a its own fiber network could expand it with, infrastructure in which would allow for there to be new providers entering these markets that would make it cost effective for private entities using our expanded fiber network to be able to provide wifi access to low income buildings, residents, and neighborhoods that right now they simply don’t have access to. Without the ability for the government to be able to expand our government owned infrastructure, the private providers would not have the economic business case to do without being able to leverage the investment of our public infrastructure that they could provide that last mile connection at a much lower cost. This all took place during the task force work that was in preparation for thinking of what we’re going to get, and many of the ideas we’re able to actually now provide funding towards because of the money that we’re able to get through both the formula grants that we’re getting and thoughtful plans that we can, I think, make a really good compelling case for the competitive grants.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: You know, when you use the word historic, you know, historic opportunity , and that freedom it gives for your team and your partners to, to think big like that. That just seems like such an incredible experience, and you’re describing this ripple effect too, that’s really also helping the economy. It’s helping the residents and it’s helping your business partners, which you think has got to make for also good relations going forward for, future endeavors as well. 

You mentioned, Kevin, that the White House was very responsive throughout all of this and gave clear guidance and clear communication. Was there anything that really surprised you in interacting with federal leaders? I imagine you’re not a stranger to working, interacting with the federal government, and in this case, was there something new or surprising that you’d like to share?  

Kevin Donahue: The most surprising aspect I think of the interactions was that we are getting really high quality feedback when we’re not successful with the competitive grant application. The way these grants work is that you don’t just have one bite at the apple. There are programs that you’d have multiple windows to apply for competitive grants too. And when we’re not successful, and we have been successful in a number of really valuable cases, what surprises us is sometimes when you apply for a federal grant or even in life, whenever you apply for something you don’t get, you often don’t get the feedback as to why. And we do get the feedback as to what it was with our grant application and that feedback lets us, when we apply again, when the window opens again, we’re able to use the feedback to reformulate our applications, our thinking, our plans to make a much stronger case again, and that, that surprises us. We knew we were going to get a responsive federal partner when it comes to building collaboration between jurisdictions. We’re very happy. We get very quick responses to questions, but helping us learn from applications that were not successful, we weren’t expecting has been incredibly valuable for when we apply again. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So you don’t know this, but part of my day job is actually working on proposals and I can 100% say how many times we do not get the feedback that would be helpful. So I can fully appreciate why this is a service and. What this says to me too is that the federal government, they really mean it. We want to help communities. And that somebody is understanding that one way to do that is to help you get better, help you have a more effective, impactful request to spending these dollars and that everybody is going to be a good steward of this federal money. 

Kevin Donahue: And very often the federal government is the natural facilitating body for allowing for ideas to be shared across jurisdiction. So in the course of doing work, I run the day-to-day operations of the District of Columbia. I will interact typically with the regional partners, but without the convening power of the federal government, our transportation officials aren’t going to naturally be sharing experiences with, the infrastructure law, with states that are not in our immediate vicinity. But we’re all going through the same experience, so just the convening power and position of the federal government’s been incredibly helpful in building connections between, leadership between staff that all work on the same issues but in different places that otherwise are just not going to be in the same room or in the same virtual environment to talk and that has also been incredibly helpful. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So you actually just answered my next question, but I’m going to repeat it anyway because I love hearing this insight from you because we don’t always have this opportunity. And my question was going to be what do you think is important for people to know about the federal government’s ability to collaborate with local governments to make this impact for individuals and communities, and your characterization of the, the federal government is this natural facilitating body and, and it’s the convener. They do have the authority and the power and the connections to bring everyone together. Would you say that there’s another aspect that you think people should know? Because I already, I think you highlighted such a key piece, and I want to give you the opportunity if there’s another element that you’d like to discuss.  

Kevin Donahue: Local officials and state officials are often so overwhelmed with the needs of their immediate communities that they’re serving with their careers, very much a big portion of our lives is dedicated to that. There’s not a natural way given what we do if you think of what we do every day for us to be able to talk with and learn from people who do the same work we’re doing, but in a different part of the country. At best, there is a opportunity regionally, no matter whether it’s I’m in DC someone else is in different part of the country. They will have regional networks, but we’re just not going to have that access and the mixture of clear, good technical information to provide from the federal government to the states and cities about what’s allowed within the grants what opportunities are. Combining that with the ability to have individuals doing the same work in different places, share with each other, is very valuable. There are weekly calls that get facilitated, and that started with the federal government pulling folks together. But end with the ability for multiple levels of DC, other states to talk with each other directly because we’ve had that consistency of dialogue that really lets us build organic relationships. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: This reminds me, I used to work at the Red Cross when they would say, you know, meeting at the disaster site is too late. Like, you want to have these relationships before, which I think is what you’re describing.  

Kevin Donahue: As I mentioned before, I can’t stress enough, there’s not a natural way for someone who’s working long hours focused on their jurisdiction to simply be able to pick up the phone and do that without the implementation team facilitating those.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Right. And now you have all of these people in your network that maybe if a certain issue comes up, you’ll remember, you know, Joe from Arkansas was dealing with this and now I know who he is and I can give him a call, which is amazing. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: I’ll turn it back now to Kelly and Asma.

Kelly Shih: So you have stories from all over the country, and I’m sure you’ve gotten feedback from some of the places where these projects are being implemented. So how does hearing the impact from the local partners that you have make you feel about your work? 

Asma Mirza: It’s incredible. I mean, I remember I went to a town hall with, with Mitch in Culpeper, Virginia, and I’m from Virginia. It’s my home state. I love it dearly, and it was both incredible and sad to hear about where this community was. Where this one woman got up and she’s a grandmother, she takes care of her grandkids because she lost her daughter to the opioids crisis and she doesn’t have high speed internet in her home. During the entire pandemic, had to have two MiFis where her grandkids could do their homework during the day, and then she worked at night because they didn’t have enough bandwidth on their internet for her to do the work, and we’re going to solve that. We’re going to get her high speed internet. We’re going to help her community do that. It was both heartbreaking to hear the story and realize the current state of parts of our community and the country, and incredibly empowering and exciting that we could help, and that we could actually make a really big difference and solve these problems that every day Americans have. So, I’m excited. I think we’re only at the beginning leg of a many leg race to actually get these projects built and get these impact done, but there’s so much potential there and I’m incredibly excited for it. 

Kelly Shih: So what are some lessons that have come out of your work with local communities like the DC Build Back Better Infrastructure Task Force that you think other parts of government might learn from? 

Asma Mirza: I think a couple things have, have come out of lessons learned. I think one, make it as easy as possible for the people you’re trying to help. We typically put out these 90 page notice of funding opportunities that are dense and legalese and really hard to navigate.  

So how do we make it as easy as possible? So how do we have the, you know, one page summary that explains like what the heck this thing is? How do we tell people when stuff is coming so that they can plan accordingly? How do we do the voice track or the webinar or the technical assistance piece to give the human touch and give people an opportunity to ask questions? I think, we’ve been able to put out a lot of resources and tools and have a lot of conversations with people to try to make it a little bit easier for these state and local agencies, which are really trying very hard, but have, you know, one grant writer to share amongst multiple departments, and so make it as easy as possible, speak in plain language I think has been one of the biggest lessons that we’ve learned from engaging with state local governments. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So Asma you may or may not know that then Mayor Landrieu in 2016 came to the Partnership as a guest speaker for our Delivering Outcomes with Communities training that we did with the Obama administration. To the point of everything that you’re talking about, he came from the perspective of, “I am representing a community in need, federal government. You are so massive, so huge. Here is how to best work with us, and here’s case study of how we’ve had success.” So I imagine that, with him leading a lot of these efforts, and as you talk about he’s going into the communities that that lens toward building trust, he’s been there, done that. He’s not just a policy wonk saying, you know, we have this law and here’s what we should do. He’s actually lived it. To that end, how do you think that know, furthering the, the collaborative work that your team is doing with local government and other task forces within communities will help build trust in government all across the country? 

Asma Mirza: I think one, the president has been very clear about what he wants this bill to do. What are the outcomes that he wants to see? He wants to see 500,000 EV chargers. He wants to see a number of bridges built. There’s a very clear sense of what we’re going to accomplish, and now we have to do it. And I think when you tell people what you’re going to do and then you deliver results and then you lift up the results and that they’re happening, that helps to endear trust. When you tell people what you’re going to do and then you don’t deliver on the results, that is what tends to erode the trust in government. 

 So we’re in that leg of the race where we’ve got to take what the president said and make it real, and it’s going to be a multi-year project. It’s not going to happen overnight. It takes a long time to build things and get the physical infrastructure in the ground. I think the way that people will trust the government is when they see the bridge has been fixed. When they see the cranes go up, when they see the EV charging stations and they decide to actually get an electric vehicle because they feel like now they won’t have the range anxiety of worrying if they’re going to be able to find an EV charger. When they get the tax credit on their taxes. When people actually see the impact in their lives, I think that’s when you’ll see a lot of trust in government. 

One of the things that I’m proud that we’ve done as part of one of the resources is that we put out a map that actually shows people, where the funding, where the awards, where the projects are going in the country. So you can zoom into your own neighborhood and see that we’ve gotten an award to fix this road or build this bridge or fix this sidewalk. It’s a way to kind of make it very real and tangible because people can see those things and not realize that it’s the federal government that’s doing it. We want to be able to talk about very specific ways that we’re delivering for Americans. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: You actually just touched on a point that was raised again back in 2016 with one of the members of the administration then saying, you know, how do we ensure that people realize some of these great things happening in communities are because of the federal government spearheading all of this? So, absolutely. 

Kelly Shih: Okay. So as we wrap up here, we’ve heard so much today and we know you’ve done so much over your career. You’ve had a really meaningful impact in your time as a public servant. So when we think about others who might want to think about pursuing this path, why might you suggest that someone pursue a career in public service?  

Asma Mirza: I love being a public servant. It is such an honor to wake up every day and ask myself, how are we going to make the lives of Americans better today? And that is the sole mission and purpose of my job, and I love that aspect of it. I think the impact you have in a single day in public service is more than I had in a year in the private sector. I loved being in the private sector, I enjoyed the work that I was doing, but the scale and scope of what I get a chance to work on here is, is incredible and, something that I will always appreciate and cherish.  

I think it’s hard. I think being a public service is hard because you have to deal with lots of bureaucracies and people and stakeholders, but at the end of the day, it’s incredibly rewarding and so, I think if people are passionate about an issue, I think find an agency, find a team you want to be a part of, and get in the arena and get a chance to make an impact on people’s lives. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And now from Kevin, why might you suggest someone pursue a career in public service or work in local government?

Kevin Donahue: So, I’ve had the benefit of working in both local government, and in DC we’re considered administratively a state and a local government. So , I guess in that sense, I’ve worked at both levels. I’ve worked in the federal government for a period of time, and the most difficult challenges that face our society, face families and communities, to me, the government gets involved when there’s no other way to be able to help solve the problem. By nature, you’re working with the most vexing, profound issues facing a community. To be able to spend your work life focused on trying to fix them, trying to mitigate them, trying to improve people’s lives in very meaningful, impactful ways, is the best use of a career I can think of for me and it is something I’ve enjoyed and appreciated ever since I had my first opportunity to work in government over 20 years ago.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: It’s a lot of hard work and I can tell that this is important and meaningful and and just interesting for you and it gets you going. So Kevin and Asma, we just want to thank you for joining us today. It’s such a pleasure hearing more about your work and getting to know you and hearing more about the things that the administration is doing and to help impact our communities. Thank you so much for wanting to dig in and be a part of public service and for sharing your story with us. 

Asma Mirza: Thank you so much for having me.  

Kevin Donahue: Thank you for asking us to share these stories. There’s a lot to share and tell, a lot of good work is happening because of the infrastructure law. All the folks in the federal government have allowed for us to be able to realize some of these ambitions that we otherwise would’ve hesitate to think as big as we’re able to think now. So thank you. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So Kelly, for me, it was so inspiring to hear from Asma who’s got this massive undertaking. On one hand it could be very wonky-sounding, very government-y. This big infrastructure bill and then the passion and enthusiasm that came out when she talked about public service and really making it about the people who they are helping and not just rushing in to finish the checkbox for what do we owe Congress because this bill passed, right? It’s no, how do we actually make impact? 

Kelly Shih: Right. I loved the line from Mitch Landrieu around that you shouldn’t need a lobbyist to be able to access your government, right? She just seems to have a really clear perspective of what an average person on the ground or an average person working in state government who’s trying to figure out how they’re going to access these funds. What kind of resources are going to be clear to them? And what channels of communication and going to the town halls and having one pagers, and things like that. Doing that will speed up the process so much that putting in the upfront investment in the beginning to think about how they’re going to build those things and how they’re going to manage it will speed things up later on so that people can really see the results of what they’re trying to do. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Right, and then that all goes to the trust piece, because if I’m told, “oh, here’s this money that’s going to help you in your community. Read this 90 page document, good luck.” You know, that can’t be it. And for this team to have the awareness of that and how to meet people where they are, then navigate the process so that we can have, these results. I mean, I think that’s, that’s such a big deal. And having other stakeholders and partners of good government say, “let us come help you with grant writing”. You know, because some of these entities who need the support maybe have a staff of three, and so to have these force multipliers, I think is a game changer. 

Kelly Shih: Right. I think they are very clear-eyed on how you need to have the story to tell, right? So you need to have delivered the results and have something, but then you also do need to tell the story that maybe someone sees a bridge go up, they don’t know how that happened. They don’t know that the federal government had a role in that. It’s important that they can tie together, you know, these things they see on the news around this huge, huge, law passing and how it really impacts them on their daily drive to work. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Right, and for things that maybe you and I take for granted that we have a working internet to do this podcast. 

Kelly Shih: Mm-hmm.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: There are communities where that’s not the case. And so, you know, I will notice the big bridge that was fixed on my commute. I don’t notice that somebody, five communities over now has clean water, internet that works. 

I mean, when she talked about it such a range of, of needs and there’s such a range of solutions out there that are needed for so many different types of problems depending on the community that you’re in. It really is very significant to be able to say, this is a federal government meeting, all of these different needs, 

Kelly Shih: Right, and it’s often only the federal government that has sort of the mandate or the resources to do those kinds of things. I think that’s what she was mentioning when we asked about her motivation and her encouragement of others to join public service, that she really enjoyed private sector too, right? But she brought in that eye for efficiency and effectiveness and problem solving and said, “what are the biggest problems?” And those are the ones that government’s dealing with from Covid-19 to infrastructure and that she feels like in doing these different roles, she’s able to make this really huge impact on a day-to-day working in public service. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: She said she loves it and it’s hard and that’s such a consistent thing that we hear from our guests. You know, find something you’re passionate about, go do it. It’s going to be hard, but it’s so worthwhile. And you know, we always love hearing that. The commitment to serving the community and the country just comes out, you know, loud and strong. 

Kelly Shih: Right. Well, it reminds me of two presidential quotes, one of which she, she brought up, which is one of my favorites, the Teddy Roosevelt one about being in the arena because that’s how she characterized her public service. That it is hard, you’re in the arena. There’s a lot of people who are going to be saying things about how you know you’re doing it for the right reasons. And then also the Kennedy quote that we don’t do it because easy, right? We do these things because it’s hard and because it’s necessary. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Well, Kelly, I’m so glad that you joined me on this podcast today. It’s great having you as a co-host, so thank you so much.  

Kelly Shih: I was so happy to be here, Rachel, and what a wonderful guest and topic to talk about. So thanks for having 

Transition Music 

Abigail Alpern Fisch: So that’s our show, thanks so much for listening! If you haven’t already, please follow or subscribe to “Profiles in Public Service” wherever you get your podcasts. 

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 I’m, Abigail Alpern Fisch, our writer and producer for today’s episode 

Our script supervisor is Barry Goldberg. 

And our executive producer is Jordan LaPier.  

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