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Gold Star: Dr. Richard Besser

By Ed O'Keefe

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Acting Director Dr. Richard Besser (center) briefing reporters earlier this week at the White House. (Photo by Bloomberg)

Eye Opener

This week's "attaboy" goes to Dr. Richard Besser, the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who stands as the best example to date of the capabilities and professionalism of the nation's career federal employees.

As we reported earlier this week, President Obama has filled only five of 20 nominated positions at the Department of Health and Human Services, including Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who was confirmed earlier this week.

Ask any rank-and-file federal employee and they'll likely say that while an agency can operate without political appointees, they need appointed political leadership to clearly define the mission, settle disagreements, coordinate efforts with other agencies and deliver a clear message to the public.

But Besser has served as a voice of calm reassurance from the moment the federal government elevated his efforts. He made important network morning show appearances on Monday, confidently answering questions as Americans began the new work week. He has spoken at daily press briefings, handled dozens of other interviews and generally acted as the public face of an agency still without a permanent leader.

"In terms of the immediate response, we have plenty of career people in place that can step and do exactly what they should do in this situation," Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, said earlier this week. He credits the Obama administration for tapping Besser to temporarily lead CDC since he previously led the agency's terrorism preparedness and emergency response unit.

Despite his public role, Besser can only do so much in his current acting role.

"People in interim and temporary decisions can only make so many of them," said Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "Building the team in the middle of an emergency is much more difficult than building a team in a time of calm," he said.

Hundreds of other senior executives and mid-level government officials like Besser continue to temporarily serve in leadership positions until political appointees win confirmation. The good doctor earns this week's Gold Star for proving once again that career folks can ably step in at a moments notice to serve a crucial public role.

Agree or disagree with this week's Gold Star winner? Sound off in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | May 1, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Gold Star  
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Next: FY-Eye: Inside the Bureaucratic Jungle


Appoint Besser as CDC head after a 'decent interval', when the swine flu tempest abates. As a publi health physician myself, I would suggest that,while there are others who might have done as well as Besser over the last 10 days, there are few if any would could have done better....especially as an acting head. Plus, it may be hard for Besser to return to a lower position, now that he has led the Agency. Perhaps appointing him as Surgeon General, if not to CDC head, would retain his expertise.

Posted by: QIOMD | May 2, 2009 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Dr. Besser is the calm now however, when he served as Director of the Office of Bioterrorism and Emergency Preparedness there was a whistleblower complaint that his office could not account for over two billion dollars of appropriated funding. If he could not handle two billion I seriously doubt that he will be able to manage the almost ten billion appropriated to the agency. Dr. Besser is part of the group that turned the CDC from a renowned health organization to a large group of highly paid incompetent federal employees and contractors. In addition, the office the Dr. Besser headed has abused contracts the same way that the agency has. To add insult to injury Dr. Besser’s Chief Management Officer (an engineer) is the Director of the Human Resources Office. CDC currently has almost 6000 contractors with a large number being former employees that took a government buy-out to retire and returned within days as contractors. Other contractors are hired and trained and then recruited through delegated examining. Commissioned Corp Officers that were medical officers are retiring on Saturday and return on Sunday as federal employees GS-15 medical officer with pay in the $200,000 and eight hours of annual leave. The accounting practices are so bad that there is no way to accurately track salaries and expenses. For example one office has 17 employees and their salaries total over 1.7 million dollars. This agency is in serious trouble and needs new leadership. There are some crucial issues at the CDC that need to be resolved and Dr. Besser is not the person to make the difficult changes that are necessary to restore CDC‘s creditability. CDC needs a skilled doctor that has the ability to restructure a work force that has the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform the work of the agency in a cost efficient manner.

Posted by: Faithful1 | May 2, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

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