What’s Whitewater Kayaking Got To Do With It?

Young Government Leaders (YGL) and GovLoop present the NextGen Public Service Awards for superior public service and achievement. The 5th Annual NextGen Public Service Awards will be given at the 2015 NextGen Award’s Ceremony, which will kick of the NextGen Training Summit on July 20th and 21st in Washington, DC. This year we have 30 finalists – the NextGen 30. Over the next month we will introduce you to our finalists through this blog series.


Meet the finalist:

Who:  Tisha Calabrese Benton, Director of the Division of Water Resources, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

Achievement: NextGen Public Service Finalist, Innovators Category

“While the impact may not sound sexy and some of it is intangible, spending five minutes speaking with the staff or external customers will assure you that her [Calabrese] impact is vast, despite being in this role for less than a year,” writes Meredith Benton, Chief of Staff, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Benton nominated Calabrese-Benton for the Innovators award.

As Tennessee’s Director of the Division of Water Resources, Calabrese-Benton has the difficult task of protecting the safety of the public’s drinking water while maintaining the health of a significant amount of water sources including rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands. Even more challenging, with no background in water management, the director had to learn to manage over 325 staff spread across nine field offices with a whopping $8 billion budget deficit.

Generating more productivity throughout a division while balancing a large budget deficit requires hard decision-making. Calabrese-Benton had to eliminate 40 positions within the division and restructure her management team to cut costs and reduce redundancies within the permit reviewing process. However, without mutual respect, these actions could have resulted in more problems for the new director.

Calabrese-Benton set out to form relationships and trust with her staff by communicating with them both in person and virtually. When she first started her position a year ago, she set out to meet people and hear their problems. Admittedly, these meetings were difficult. However Calabrese recognizes the benefits, “I wouldn’t have it any other way because if they weren’t tough meetings it meant people didn’t trust you enough to tell you what the problems were.”

Calabrese-Benton’s nominator explains, “She was not a water technical expert when she became the director of the division but quickly became one and regularly wins over subject matter experts with her ability to relate to technical staff and practitioners.”

Although the director was not a technical expert in water resource management when she started out, she was able to bond with her staff over her experience whitewater kayaking. She even met her husband doing the sport and they now take their three-year-old daughter out on some of the slower rivers in Tennessee.

After making personal connections, through transparent conversations and assuring her staff that they were in it together, she was able to eventually develop a system that allows for idea sharing and the implementation of programs that reflect unique skills at every level.

Additionally, the division received a significant increase in permit applications throughout the director’s first year. Calabrese had to utilize her newly reorganized division to enhance the quality of permits issued while complying with both state and federal requirements for water quality.

Benton summarizes Calabrese-Benton’s first year as director,:“It was a perfect storm of needing to make tough decisions internally while not impacting the service received by those externally.”

Ultimately Calabrese believes in the work she does and trusts in the great people that work for her. After speaking on the ground with all nine field offices, she realized that the division workers were there for the right reasons. She expressed, “They believe in the work, they work hard, and they give it their all. It’s a really rewarding group of people to be able to work with and they teach me every day.”

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