For a labor of love, civil servants may get a high honor

FEDERAL WORKERS

August 03, 2007|By MELISSA HARRIS

This is the first in a three-part series on Maryland-based finalists for the 2007 Service to America Medals, or Sammies, one of the highest honors bestowed upon civil servants. The winners will be announced next month.

Wallace Fung, chief technology officer at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, had a big problem in spring of last year: Computer processing errors were causing headaches for hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans and seniors trying to get medicine under the new federal prescription drug program.

Fung gathered about 25 contractors in a conference room, stood at the head of the table and turned his pants pockets inside out.

"He said, `My pockets are empty. I don't have any more money,'" said Julie Boughn, the agency's chief information officer, who nominated Fung, 59, of Silver Spring and colleague Henry Chao, 48, of Columbia for a Service to America Medal, the highest honors given to civil servants. "He was telling them, `Don't come in here and say we're going to do this only if you pay us more money. We have to find a way within the resources we've got to make it all work.'"

Under Fung's leadership, each contractor agreed to dedicate one analyst to a quality-control team, which would spearhead the problem-solving efforts on a host of issues.

"We had no money for this, but that team is really responsible for how many strides we've made in terms of quality," said Boughn of Columbia. "And it was Wally's brainchild."

Fung, Chao and Boughn were tasked "with one of the most complex and consequential information technology challenges that anyone in the world has had to address, and no one has heard of them," said Max Steir, president of the Partnership for Public Service, which sponsors the Service to America Medals. "They've had a lot of success and very few mistakes."

The three-person team, based at the agency's headquarters in Woodlawn, scheduled when each member would sleep. For a four-month period, they would work in eight-hour shifts, ensuring that one person was always on the job. Until June, Fung was still participating in conference calls on Saturdays and Sundays.

When asked how many hours Fung worked per day during the months when seniors were enrolling in the program, his wife, Margie Fung, said, "Hmmmm. Let's say 24."

"We'd be eating dinner, and he'd be on the phone constantly. He'd get up in the middle of the night. ... There was just so much visibility. There were so many people counting on the benefit," said his wife, an engineer who met her husband on their first day of federal employment at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, Calif.

Fung and Chao were responsible for the computer networks required to transmit information from a person's enrollment form to the computer at the pharmacy.

Programmers and engineers had to teach computers at more than 700 organizations -- CMS, contractors, insurers, pharmacies, states and the Social Security Administration -- how to communicate.

The job required about 50 contractors and more than 5,000 workers. The schedule was tight. Congress passed the legislation late in 2003, the Bush administration proposed the rules for implementing the program in July 2004, enrollment began a little more than one year later, and the benefit went to millions of low-income and elderly Americans on Jan. 1, 2006.

Fung and Chao had to limit testing, for instance, to meet the deadline. They didn't have time to develop new software, and instead had to cobble together existing products and enlarge systems to handle 10 times the workload.

"It wasn't how any information technology purist would do it," said Boughn. "We knew it was risky."

Chao and Fung have experience working for the Department of Defense -- Chao as a Navy petty officer and Fung as a civilian manager and engineer.

"From my time on an aircraft carrier, I was used to the tempo and the energy needed to meet immovable deadlines," Chao said.

Chao was born in Taiwan, grew up in New York City, joined the Navy and served on the USS Enterprise. While stationed at the U.S. Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, he supported the design and development of new aircraft systems. He graduated from St. Mary's College with a degree in economics.

He chose public service because "I wanted to know that I was serving a greater purpose than getting a paycheck."

Fung who was born in Shanghai, China, moved to Hong Kong as a toddler. His family relocated to San Francisco, where Fung finished high school and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he earned three degrees, including a master's in business administration.

"I have no problem thinking outside of the box," Fung said. "From our perspective at Berkeley, there was no box."

At China Lake, as a Navy information technology manager, he helped build what was then the world's largest fiber-optic network.

And later at Financial Management Service, a Treasury Department bureau in Hyattsville, he helped orchestrate Social Security Administration's transition from paper to electronic payments, reducing a 15-day process to two days.

"The job satisfaction is tremendous," said Fung, who could have retired five years ago. "It's almost self-serving because when I was at FMS, I would tell my staff, `You better get this right because my paycheck just went through that system over there.'

"And if I didn't do my job right, my mom and dad wouldn't get their Social Security check, or they wouldn't get their prescriptions filled. And I could expect a call from San Francisco."

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be found at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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