02/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Something to Chu On

On Tuesday, the US Senate began confirmation hearings on Secretary of Energy Designate Steven Chu. And to be sure, the nomination of Chu -- like almost all of the Obama appointments -- represents a striking and hopeful departure from the approach we've seen under President Bush.

There's real opportunity for Steven Chu to become one of the best Secretaries of Energy that we've ever seen. And at the same time there are real challenges that could relegate all this hope to the dustbin.

But to give life to the Hope that Barack Obama spoke about, the President-Elect must look no further than his own life story and his own record of breaking down barriers, fostering communication and rewarding collaboration.

And he can put all this to the test not only with his cabinet positions -- but more realistically with who he appoints to the number two and number three positions at each agency. It can start with Steven Chu. But it can take on transformative powers if he seeks to incentivize the civil servants throughout the government.

But this is where we need a word of caution, too. We've seen recently a real and almost comical focus on "Czars" during this transition period. We have a "Climate Czar;" and they've talked about a "Mortgage Czar" -- even a "Car Czar." Enough already with all these Czars! And worse, the Czar concept connotes a top-down approach that had been an anathema to the Obama campaign.

So let's forget about creating all these top-down "Czars." Rather, let's incentivize our government employees and let's solve some real problems at the same time.

Here's what I'm talking about: Did you know that the US Department of Agriculture may have more resources to invest on renewable energy programs each year than the Department of Energy? Did you know that the US Treasury Department has multi-billion dollar Market Incentive programs that it can invest in renewable energy in poor regions of our country?

That's astounding! And it's just the tip of the iceberg! Each agency it seems has people and money focused on similar problems and solutions. But more astounding is that the people running these program -- the "Schedule C appointees," the "Senior Executive Service" and the "GS 15" and "GS 14" civil servants of Energy, Treasury and Agriculture rarely speak and work regularly with their counterparts at DOE, EPA, State, or any other number of agencies that put money, people and resources towards clean, renewable energy.

So what we have is a "siloed" approach to doing business. EPA does it's thing; DOE theirs; USDA does it's thing -- and never shall they meet.

What a waste.

Now imagine what would happen if Barack Obama simply applied his own life lessons to these agencies. Imagine if instead of creating "Czars," he appointed people who understood from the get-go that their jobs required them to work collaboratively -- go "lateral" -- with their counterparts in other agencies. Literally, we'd "find" billions of dollars for programs in clean energy. Programs that would create jobs; build a market for clean energy and even be part of the Climate Change solution. (To say nothing about our own national security interests.)

I'm obviously not the first one to think of this idea. Over at the Department of Agriculture, a senior civil servant now retired understood the opportunities we could have by breaking down these silos. His creation of the "Farmers Market Consortium" signaled one of the rare times that a number of government agencies worked together to bring about significant societal change. And it worked. The Farmers Market Consortium today is thriving. It's a win for the farmers, for communities, for our vulnerable and for all of us.

So how about we create a farmers market-type consortium on renewable energy? Let's draft an MOU between DOE, EPA, State, USDA, DOD and even the Department of Treasury (all of whom have "renewable energy programs") that simply allows these agencies to work together regularly on renewable energy issues. This consortium will leverage the best work and resources of each agency to bring about real change in the clean energy marketplace.

In 2004, Secretary Ann Veneman at USDA and Secretary Tommy Thompson developed and signed an MOU to foster expanded funding and committed support for America's new refugee and immigrant farmers, why not develop a broader MOU between USDA, DOE and EPA to drive our existing renewable energy efforts even as we explore new and innovative options. Let's ask our civil servants to tell us what hasn't worked and then ask them what could work!

There are some who have told me that this type of cooperation just simply can't happen. That to think that government agencies can come together around a common purpose to solve major problems just can't happen.

But we have great civil servants throughout our Government. Task them, provide them guidance and encourage them to work together wherever they are "siloed" and housed.

I say, Yes We Can!

So Chu on that....