Spring 2020 Journal: A Conversation with Janet Napolitano

This piece is the sixth (and last) article featured in our Spring 2020 journal. For the complete journal, please see the “Journal Archive” tab above.

Edited by: Molly McGregor and Amelia Watts

Janet Napolitano is the twentieth president of the University of California, the nation’s largest public research university with ten campuses, five medical centers, three affiliated national laboratories, and a statewide agriculture and natural resources program. At UC, President Napolitano has launched initiatives to achieve financial stability for the University; achieve carbon neutrality across the UC system by 2025; accelerate the translation of UC research into products and services; focus UC resources on global food security; and create a systemwide program with Mexico. In 2014, she was appointed a tenured faculty member of UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, and in 2015 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Prior to joining the University of California, President Napolitano served as Secretary of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2013. She is a former two-term Governor of Arizona, a former Attorney General of Arizona, and a former U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona. In 2019, Napolitano published How Safe Are We? Homeland Security Since 9/11.  President Napolitano earned her B.S. degree, summa cum laude, in Political Science from Santa Clara University, and her J.D. from the University of Virginia. She is based in Oakland, CA.

President Napolitano announced in 2019 that she would conclude her tenure in August of 2020. After a yearlong break, she intends to focus on teaching at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

BPPJ would like to note that this interview was conducted prior to the escalation of the UC Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) strikes. BPPJ stands in solidarity with graduate student workers who demand a living wage and demilitarization of campus police. We also strongly condemn the actions that President Napolitano and the University of California have taken to retaliate against student strikers. We urge President Naplitano’s office to bargain in good faith with our representatives at UAW 2865 to meet the needs of graduate student workers across the UC system. Additionally, we stand in solidarity with UC service and health care workers who had been striking last fall to prevent employee displacement and the outsourcing of their jobs.

The below transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

BPPJ: In your new book, How Safe Are We, you describe the Department of Homeland Security as the least understood agency of the federal government. In a few words, could you describe the Department of Homeland Security and your role there?

Napolitano: DHS was an amalgamation of what previously had been 22 different agencies of the federal government, all from different legacy departments, brought together under one roof out of the thinking that dots were not connected prior to the 9/11 attacks. If, under one umbrella, you had an agency that had land border security, sea border security, and air borders, if you had one place where protection of the nation’s critical infrastructure was centered (that’s where you get into cyber), if you put all of the immigration functions of the federal government in one department (meaning both border enforcement, but also interior enforcement and the legalization process), and if you also put under one roof the nation’s resilience capability in terms of natural disasters, then the nation overall would be better prepared.

And so DHS was born. It’s an amazingly complicated department to run because it combines all of these missions. It’s also very large — the third largest department of the federal government — and it’s fascinating because homeland security implicates the whole national security administrative structure. It’s also very international because if you wait until problems actually get to our physical borders, you’ve often waited too long. Your chances of interrupting nefarious activity are better if you give yourself more space in which to operate.

BPPJ: In policy school, we often talk about creating new government programs and about improving efficiency by encouraging collaboration and communication between departments. The Department of Homeland Security is an interesting case study in how difficult it can be to create something new. Can you tell us a little bit about the growing pains that DHS was experiencing when you took it over and some of the more enduring challenges?

Napolitano: So when you bring together all these different agencies, you have different agency cultures that you’re bringing together. You have different personnel policies. You have different email systems. You have different uniforms. You have different procurement practices. All those kinds of nuts and bolts had to be harmonized and brought together  — it’s not glamorous at all. I would say that we made progress on it while I was Secretary, but it was still a work in progress for sure.

You know, the Department of Defense (DOD) was created after World War II and they were only putting together like four or five different agencies — not twenty-two. There was a report that concluded that it really took the DOD about 40 years to become the Pentagon. When I took over DHS, it was eleven years old, so it was still in its adolescence.

Frankly, I have been very concerned that the constant changeover in leadership at DHS under the Trump administration and the use of “Actings” instead of confirmed individuals has set the department back. I think it’s been very difficult from a management perspective.

BPPJ: In the book, you talk about the anxiety that Americans felt after 9/11. With mass shootings, climate change, wildfires in California, floods in Houston, concerns about our election security… it feels like that sense of anxiety has become commonplace. How did it shape your leadership and how has it changed policymaking in general?

Napolitano: 9/11 was a huge shock to the American psyche — that an attack like that could occur on our soil. Everybody who was more than four or five years old at the time knows where they were on 9/11, like people who are my age know where they were when JFK was assassinated. It’s one of those defining moments in American history. There’s been this tremendous focus on anti-terrorism, particularly that associated with Islamists, and in a way, I think of it differently than some of the things that you just described because none of them has a single defining moment. They’re more kind of ongoing sources of concern and angst. What I tried to do at DHS was keep people informed about risks but not fearful. It would be so easy for all of us just to curl ourselves in a ball and say the world’s going to heck and there’s nothing I can do about it.

The fact of the matter is we have some huge challenges. I would put climate right at the top, actually, as the largest, most complicated issue — even above cyber — facing the planet today. But like all massive problems, it can be broken into components and it can be worked. The problem is that it really requires leadership at the top to say that this is a priority. You need leadership to say I want to know what’s happening, I want to know what your benchmarks are, and I want to know what your metrics are. I want to know what problems you’re experiencing, and I want to know what kind of resources you need. Right now, in the United States, we don’t have that. We don’t have it in many countries of the world, frankly. So the the parts of climate change that should be addressed are not being addressed. I would also put cyber up there as an enormously complicated set of issues.

BPPJ: And both of those have jurisdictional issues.

Napolitano: Oh, both. They’re international in scope. In the United States, you have questions like what’s federal? What’s state? What’s in the public sector? What’s in the private sector? You have unclear jurisdiction amongst the federal agencies and so many cooks in the kitchen. That’s what makes it so complicated. But we don’t solve problems by saying they’re hard. We solve problems by taking them on.

BPPJ: On those issues, one of the things you talk about in the book is the need for more effective engagement with the private sector. Can you speak a little bit about the role that you would like to see the private sector playing in terms of addressing the cybersecurity threats as well as things like climate change, given that we’re not effectively addressing these problems at the moment?

Napolitano: When we say the “private sector,” that’s a label that covers a huge variety of players — big businesses, small businesses, businesses headquartered in the United States, businesses headquartered in other countries. You have everything from the mom-and-pop shop to the large international conglomerate. And in my experience, business responds to problems in different ways. It responds when there are economic incentives. That’s probably the place where you see the most direct response to government action. If there’s an economic incentive for business to do X, business moves in that direction. Another area where business is responsive is when there’s regulatory and legal oversight. And then you’ll see business move in a different direction. A third area is when you call on the private sector (and you have to get the right level and the right players) to contribute voluntarily to addressing an issue by contributing expertise and by voluntarily adopting standards.

The problem in the cyber world is that, for too long, investments in cybersecurity were not reflected in the bottom line. So the incentive was to underinvest and to make compliance with standards voluntary. The problem with that, of course, is that we live in a networked world, so if there is a gap anywhere in the network, the whole network can be infiltrated. We haven’t solved that problem in cyber. What we need to do is identify the nation’s critical infrastructure. And in my view, we ought to have national standards that are mandatory, not voluntary. The government needs to work with the private sector to establish those standards. Then it needs to have oversight capacity to be able to make sure those standards are being adhered to. But we’re far, far away from that now.

And we have some particular issues like the election systems of the country. Elections are controlled by local officials. They’re not federal, and it was only recently that Congress actually appropriated money for local departments to up their game in terms of the security of their ballot systems. But it’s still not totally secure, even with a massive election coming up. So there’s a risk.

BPPJ: What are your fears for the upcoming election since we’re not where we need to be in terms of protecting our systems?

Napolitano: Well, I think there are several. One is the security of the ballot mechanisms themselves. To me, the only real safeguard we have is to retain paper ballot records. In a close election, an accurate count really matters. We saw that in 2000 during the Bush-Gore election, and we saw it, in a way, in 2016 where it was really only 75,000 votes among three states that decided the Electoral College. So there’s a risk to the actual mechanism of the election. And then there’s the whole interference risk on the big social media platforms in terms of spreading misinformation and misleading information designed to either encourage support for one candidate or another or designed to suppress the vote or certain segments of the vote.

BPPJ: We are very excited to have you join the Goldman School once you finish your tenure as President of the UC, and we’re very curious to know what you’d like to bring to the school given the variety of careers you’ve had in the public sector. What are you most excited and what might you decide to teach at Goldman?

Napolitano: That is a work in progress. I’m definitely interested in all of the topics that are implicated by homeland security. And I do think I have some unique experience to bring to bear there! I could also teach a course on leadership in public higher education. The University of California is a unique institution of higher education in the country. There are some who say that being president of the UC is the most complicated job in higher education in the country. I don’t know about that, but it’s certainly complicated enough.

Part of the equation is what the school would like me to teach and what the students’ interests are. And then there is also state government, and justice policy and prosecution policy. So there are a lot of different areas. I’ve had interesting jobs my whole career, so I can see constructing a course in any of those areas. I’ll be having discussions with Dean Brady and others, and we’ll put together something good.

BPPJ: In your book, you say that being a public servant means serving where you’re needed. Can you talk about your theory of public leadership? How have you approached leadership and how has it changed in the various roles you’ve held?

Napolitano: Good question. In a way, you’d like to say you know good leadership when you see it. But I tend to think that there’s a difference between being a good leader and being a good manager. A good leader is someone who can create a broad vision for an organization, persuade people to follow that vision, and then have the skill set necessary to implement that vision. And a good manager is really focused on the implementation part. I think good leadership requires good communication skills and good listening skills. I think it requires energy. When you’re the leader, you go into a meeting, you’ve got to provide the energy and get people going. Those are some of my thoughts anyway. It’s a good question.

BPPJ: Having just celebrated its 50th anniversary, the Goldman School is currently conducting a curriculum review to determine what training professionals will need for the next 50 years in public policy. What do you see as the essential skills that every public policy practitioner needs to have?

Napolitano: You need good analytic skills that span a broad spectrum, particularly quantitative skills depending on which area you’re looking at. I think you also need an ability to interpret a policy vision that is articulated, either by the head of your agency or the elected official that you’re working for, and translate it into something on the ground.

And there needs to be a constant focus on what the “value add” is. What’s the value add of the work that you’re doing? And what is the value added compared to the costs of what you’re doing? I think those are the skills you need today and I think those are the skills you’ll need 50 years from now. In the public realm, even if you’re in a so-called nonpolitical role, I think you have to have a little political judgment, political sensibility. Public means public, and that involves some politics.

BPPJ: As you’re wrapping up your tenure as the president of the UC system, can you reflect on the skills that you brought to bear in this position and how it differed from previous jobs you’ve had in public service, especially since you didn’t come in with an educator’s background?

Napolitano: So there are certain things that big institutions have in common, whether you’re running a state or federal agency, or big university system.  You’re dealing with budgets. You’re dealing with multiple stakeholders. You’re dealing with the media. There’s always a crisis de jour that you have to work through while still trying to keep the trains running toward larger, long-term goals. On those elements, I brought a lot of experience to this role. What I didn’t bring to this role was direct experience in higher education. I had an appreciation for it, but no direct experience in it. And I didn’t have experience with the shared governance model [facilitating faculty participation in the operation of the UC through institutions like the faculty senate]. I came to appreciate that as actually one of the strengths of the University of California.

Every different aspect of policy has its own organizations, has its own acronyms, has its own ways of talking. So I had to learn a lot of vocabulary, like what is the AAU? And why do we care? And who else reads Inside Higher Ed on a daily basis? Those kinds of things. And that’s fun. You know, that’s one of the fun things about changing roles. You get to learn about different institutions and the way they work and what they respond to. I enjoy that.

BPPJ: The UC system is a unique public educational system. What are your views about the role that it plays, not only in society, but also in training future civil servants and others in the community, not just for California but globally? Do you see it as an institution of upward social mobility?

Napolitano: California would not be California without the university. There are whole swaths of the California economy that come out of the UC, from the wine industry to semiconductors to entertainment to different kinds of crops and agricultural techniques that have allowed us to grow crops in the Valley, for example. That all comes out of the UC.

We often use this phrase “engine of social mobility.” And the UC really is, in terms of the 42 percent of undergraduates that are first generation students, in terms of the income levels that graduates earn, and in terms of all of the fields in California that graduates enter. You go up to Sacramento and you go to legislators’ offices, and even if they didn’t go to the UC, they’ll have staffers who did. Or, you go to a legislative committee and they’re calling on experts. And where do they find the experts? They find them at the UC. So it’s a social mobility engine that fuels the California economy and trains the next generation with the skill sets that are going to be needed to sustain California for the future.

BPPJ: Do you see any key areas for improvement in terms of equity in the UC system?

Napolitano: Yes, we’re always working on equity. One area that I’m keenly interested in is how to close the time-to-degree gaps for students from lower income families. There’s also a big overlap there with race and socioeconomic status. We do pretty well overall at the six-year rate, but when you ask who takes four and who takes six, there’s a gap. And that gap means more student debt, among other things. So we’re working with all of the campuses to close that gap.

BPPJ: What’s an accomplishment, maybe a lesser known accomplishment, that you are most proud of? What is one that you wish interviewers would ask you about?

Napolitano: Well, I did invent the TSA PreCheck name. We had decided that we needed a process for airline passengers that we already knew to be low-risk before they showed up at the security gate, if there was a way to put them in a line so they didn’t have to take their shoes off, etc. And the staff came to me with this very long, governmental name like “pre-trip validation of risk factor program” or something. And I was like, we’re checking people before they get to the gate, right? So it’s a pre-check. PreCheck. So yeah, maybe that’ll go on my tombstone. Sometimes leadership is just being able to pick the right label.