White House CSO Christine Harada leads by example

Christine Harada
Executive Office of the President
White House CSO Christine Harada

What does it mean to be the Chief Sustainability Officer for the United States’ federal government operations?

For starters, you’d be on the hook for the environmental and energy sustainability of 360,000 buildings, a fleet of 650,000 vehicles and $445 billion annually in purchased goods and services. Christine Harada has taken on the challenge.

Last November, Harada was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the Chief Sustainability Officer for federal operations on the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The position was vacated by Kate Brandt as she took a job in a similar role Google.

Harada came to this job with a wealth of diverse experience, including her past position in federal government as the Associate Administrator at the General Services Administration, as a corporate consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton and as an aeronautical engineer for Lockheed Martin.

GreenBiz spoke to Harada about what her new position entails, her vision for the government’s engagement with the private sector, how she hopes to leverage data to maximize operational sustainability and what she is looking forward to learn at GreenBiz 16 next week in Phoenix, Arizona. The interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Sureya Melkonian: Where do you see the White House's role in the world of sustainability?

Christine Harada: I think the White House plays a very critical role in ensuring how the federal government both expands and updates their federal environmental performance goals, largely with a focus and objective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across our federal operations and the federal supply chain.

And to that end, for example, placing priority first on reducing energy use and cost, and then on finding renewable or alternative energy solutions. We're also pursuing clean sources of energy to improve energy and water security while ensuring that federal facilities will continue to meet their mission requirements and lead by example.

So for example, we've issued a number of challenges to federal agencies on increasing on-site renewable energy generation. Our Department of Defense, for example, is on target to generate three gigawatts of power using largely solar. And we're also on track to awarding on the order of $4 billion of performance contracts, leveraging innovative financial mechanisms from the private sector, that enable us to remove about a million tons of carbon dioxide emitted annually just from this effort alone.

Melkonian: Last week, the White House proposed the $10 per barrel tax on oil in order to fund innovations in transportation, and also last week, Obama said he wanted to double the U.S. investment in clean energy which would boost funding for research at a lot of the federal agencies. Was your department involved in any of these proposals?

Harada: So actually, no. My office is the office of federal sustainability, and we face federal government operations. So there's two ways to look at this. One is in terms of what the federal government does, and I think the two examples you just brought up right now are policies that the President and the administration have set forth for the entire country, and then the other way to look at it is on the federal government operations side.

So for example, if you take a look at the various agency budgets — what percent of that is allocated towards energy management, what percent of that is allocated towards water management — and how do we make sure we ourselves are running more cleanly, more sustainably in a more green manner. So I focus more on the second bucket of that. 

To your point, I and my successors would certainly benefit from a lot of the technology and innovations. However, we would be a sidebar beneficiary. The primary beneficiaries would be your average taxpayer, or you and me as private citizens or companies in the United States.

Melkonian: How involved is the White House CSO in the President’s Executive Orders? 

Harada: My predecessor was very heavily involved in Executive Order 13693 ["Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade" pdf.] that was issued last March, which is probably one of the better articulations of our policy. In fact, she spearheaded the effort.

The President has a number of advisors. Before coming into federal government, I certainly didn't have a really good appreciation of this and I think it's somewhat confusingly titled. But under the White House, you'll see a number of councils, like the Domestic Policy Council, the National Security Council, the National Economic Council — things of that nature. We’re the Council on Environmental Quality.  And fundamentally, these groups are the President's advisors on policy.

When the President says ‘This is a direction in which we want to head — we want to become a sustainable nation, we want to be much more of a green nation and we want to make sure that we are leading by example,’ he calls upon the Council Environment Quality and other parts of my office to make sure that (a) we develop the right policies, and (b) we help executive agencies with implementing that policy. 

Melkonian: Is there any regional specificity in your proposals?

Harada: So you hit the nail on the head; that, candidly, that's actually one of my bigger challenges. You want to make sure you've got a strategy and a policy in place that applies to all federal government operations. But I also want to make sure it is tailored appropriately both from a regional perspective as well as from a per agency perspective.

So for example, with the drought situation in California, we need to make sure our water policies are enabling the agencies to make the right decisions on how they ought to be making investments to help conserve water or recycle grey water. Versus perhaps in the northeast or southeast where we've got bigger issues with storm water management. How do we make sure our federal facilities are actually doing those in a proper manner ... that's environmentally friendly, that actually helps to take away some of the toxins being absorbed into the waterbed, etcetera. 

Melkonian: Relatedly, as a country, we have differing views on climate. Much of our country doesn't believe in climate change. How do you engage these people?

Harada: I think the good news about our sustainability efforts is that frequently, there's a very strong business case that supports such investments. In that sense, it's about ensuring the best value for our taxpayer dollars. It's very hard to argue with that. And for a national security portfolio, there's also a very strong case to be made for smart energy management and diversifying our portfolio of fuel options to minimize our risk to operations. There's also a lot of cases to be made for the intrinsic value of the particular operation.

So as a quick example, we have a marine base on Twentynine Palms, California. Obviously it's been at the center of the drought for a couple of years. If you don't have water, you don't have operations. If you don't have operations, then you don't have a mission ready trained force. That's a serious operational issue.

Thinking about it both from a cost savings or taxpayer value perspective, as well as directly tying it into how we operate our missions is mainly – and very candidly, it's always the first selling point. And many times, the only selling point.

There are many people who fear change. My favorite phrase about change management is, "The only people who like change is a baby and a dirty diaper." Not many people are cool with change, and so there's a little bit of that.

But more often than not, again, once we think through both the content as well as the messaging and distribution of that messaging, just like any other corporate transformation initiative in the private sector, a lot of it comes down to making sure that we speak the language of the population that we want to change.

And frequently, a lot of those change-resistant folks, if you will, really do resonate with both the mission and the cost-savings arguments. I anticipate a lot of your private sector CSOs would probably say the same thing.

Melkonian: Does your department engage the private sector in its work?

Christine Harada: Absolutely. It's the policy of certainly the Obama administration to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to maintain our leadership in sustainability and greenhouse gas reductions. And to that effect, we are certainly open to listening to ideas and innovative models from various businesses.

It's a great learning opprtunity for us. There's a lot of good stuff that we're doing in the federal government, and lot of great stuff that's happening in the private sector. We're always looking to figure out what might be the best answer that provides the best taxpayer value for our agency operations. 

Melkonian: When you were at the General Services Administration (GSA) you worked to better collect and analyze data. Are you making similar efforts in your new position?

Harada: I'm a self-described data geek. I love data. So when I was back at GSA, I set up a data analytics team. The government sits on a ton of great data. And what I found was that we just weren't either (a) leveraging the data in the correct manner, (b) asking the right questions about the data, and then therefore (c) we weren't really providing very good value-added services, if you will, to our customer agencies.

So one of the things that is certainly on the top of my mind here in my mind is in thinking through how we make sure we're collecting the right data across this vast enterprise they call the federal government: 4.2 million FTE (full-time equivalent employees) with operations all around the globe.

How do we make sure that we're actually collecting the right kind of data in a clean way that doesn't super tax the collection process itself? — because I don't want to kill the staff just to collect the data — and trying to figure out how we use it in order to be able to maintain our leadership in energy, environment, water, the fleet, buildings, acquisitions management and things of that nature.

Melkonian: Is that approach to data mainly used to inform policy? Or do you also facilitate the designing of systems around that data when managing federal government buildings and fleets? For example, are you using an Internet of Things type of system for buildings?

Harada: That type of activity is something that would reside in an executive agency like a GSA or DOD or the State Department. There are indeed agencies that are using those kinds of systems. So for example, at GSA, we've got many smart buildings that have multiple smart meters and we're fully leveraging things like Internet of Things to help us better manage and run the buildings and make sure that we're actually getting a lot of the savings out of the energy conservation measures that we put in place. 

In my particular office, we're more on the front line — we're more on the policy side of things. I would say maybe in the private sector parlance, it's more around the strategy and the overall direction. So federal agencies shall make sure that their operations are energy efficient, that they are environmentally friendly, that they are conserving water and managing storm water appropriately, that they are managing the fleet in a way that is environmentally sustainable, that we are doing our procurements and managing our acquisitions in a way that is sustainable.

Melkonian: What it your role in sustainable product procurement? Does the White House have its own internal standards for what sustainability constitutes?

Harada: In FY14 the federal government bought 445 billion dollars worth of stuff. My half joke is that we buy everything from dog food to satellites, and so for those areas that we can actually apply sustainable acquisitions, we do our best to actually apply those principles.

Obviously, there are many areas which we cannot apply necessarily sustainable principles. You know — missile systems, weapon systems, things of that nature —  and so we're careful to not impede the mission on those kinds of fronts, but everywhere else we're applying these principles.

The federal government actually has a good number of standards associated with it, and it's more from a product category type of perspective as opposed to, or in addition to, the Green Principles. So we have things like bio-preferred fuels, we've got electronic preferences that are proven to be sustainably manufactured, we have preferences for recycled content paper, we have preferences for green chemicals and things of that nature.

We also provide a substantial amount of training to our contracting professionals in order to make sure they understand what it really means to do sustainable acquisitions and what it means to actually check for green labels or things of that nature.

If you take a look at the Executive Order 13693, there's specifically a section around acquisitions, so it's got a bunch of labels in there like ‘bio-preferred’ and things of that nature. But also, there is the Sustainable Acquisition and Materials Management Practices (SAMM) interagency working group where they explicitly flesh out the more detailed, nitty gritty, detail level of how do we think about doing sustainable acquisitions. 

Melkonian: How are you approaching the sustainability of the vehicles in the government fleet?

Harada: I'd say there are three or four levers around that. One is around making sure we've got the right size fleet for the agencies to meet the particular missions. And I would say that again ties back to the overall taxpayer dollar values. There's no point in having an excess amount of cars in our fleet — it’s just not a very good use of dollars.

But secondly, the President just called out to the federal agencies and mandated that we shall reduce greenhouse gas per mile across the entire fleet by 25 percent by the year 2025. 

Additionally, we're looking at recrafting or redesigning the nature of the fleet ... such that the fleet has 30 percent either zero-emission vehicles or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles as well by the year 2025. We're currently in the process right now of working with agencies on developing those plans. 

Lastly, there [are] also things in there around telematics that help us better understand how these vehicles are used. We want to be sensitive to how the agencies actually carry out the mission. We have well over 650,000 vehicles in our fleet; we want them to be effective. We want law enforcement vehicles to show up on time with full power to catch the bad guys and all that other kind of good stuff.

But at the same time, again, [we want to] be able to do that in a way that both reduces our GHG emissions, ensures best taxpayer dollar value, and ensures the correct kinds of behavior. 

Melkonian: Is there are particularly difficult challenge that you're currently trying to tackle?

Harada: I think a nuanced challenge that may not be immediately visible to the public is around navigating the various laws, authorities and funding streams for federal agencies. That is candidly a tremendously complicated beast that I did not have much appreciation for until I came into federal government.

Every agency has different laws that apply to them — what it is and is not allowed to do, and what it is and is not funded to do. And in my experience, agency leaders are very well aware of the optimal technical solution for managing energy in their fleet to do things more sustainably and more smartly.

But the devil is really in the details of navigating through those kinds of legal issues. Of course we face our fair share of fiscal constraints, just like any business, and thinking through how we can develop those innovative financing mechanisms is even more critical in this environment.

Melkonian: You'll be speaking at GreenBiz 16  in Scottsdale, Arizona. Can you give us a preview of what you hope to discuss?

Harada: I'm really looking forward to the conversation with the private sector CSOs around some of the challenges that we face within the federal government perspective. But I’m also looking forward to discussing about the things that we are doing from a leadership perspective. I think that given the recent Paris negotiations, it is super key — and this is something I take very near and dear to my heart — to make sure we are leading by example. And so all the things we're doing, all the policies we're trying to put in place as federal agencies, how we are trying to affect that change — it is all with that in mind.

I think there's a lot of great, better and best practices that we've seen in the private sector; stuff that I've tracked very closely. I know there's a number of studies that have been done more recently by McKinsey and Deutsche Bank that have proven that for those companies that lead in sustainability efforts, it's not just lip service. It's not just for good PR. It's actually really good for the bottom line. And so with that kind of vision and direction in mind, I'm very much looking forward to learning from other chief sustainability officers and other members of the GreenBiz forum to see what lessons we might also be able to incorporate in the federal government operations.