Harris: Q&A with Penny Pritzker

In Chicago interview, U.S. commerce secretary discusses her first Cabinet meeting, the challenges of her job — and a letter from her great-grandfather

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U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker returned to Chicago for her first official visit last week, during which I interviewed her at a World Business Chicago event. Pritzker, a billionaire member of one of Chicago's wealthiest families, has a business background that includes real estate, the family's Hyatt hotels chain and private investment. There was time for about 10 questions. This is an edited transcript of the interview, conducted in front of an invited audience at Google's Chicago office.

Q: You've gone from managing large businesses to managing a large federal agency. What's the biggest adjustment you've had to make in going from the private sector to the public sector?

A: I was meeting with our Chinese counterparts, and you can't get briefed on that until you've been sworn in. Because there are things they're going to tell you that you're not allowed to know otherwise. So you start with that. It's this running start. You're doing your business. You're minding your business, and then all of a sudden you have to be an expert on something, and you have to do it in four days.

And the Commerce Department has a pretty broad set of activities. We give you your patent and your trademark. We run the National Weather Service. We count the fish in the sea, and we tell you how many you can catch. ... We run something called the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and we set standards for everything from fire hydrants to skyscrapers to nanotechnology. It's the most amazing place I've ever been. We are the census. We run the American Community Survey. We give you a license to export things that require a license. So the most challenging part has been to try to get my arms around a very broad set of things, as well as I am a member of the president's economic team. So then there's the economic agenda on top of that.

Q: Fair or not, there's a perception that this administration is anti-business. What is the most important thing that you're working on or that you think can be done to change that perception?

A: I think there's a misperception about all the things this administration is doing in order to support business. Take the national export initiative, which is an initiative to double exports. ... SelectUSA, which is an effort to bring foreign direct investment to the United States. We've never had a federal effort around foreign direct investment. ... Travel and tourism. We've never before had a national travel and tourism strategy ... a focus on everything from visas to how do we promote travel to the United States. Those are just a few of the initiatives that I think aren't appreciated very much by the business community. And there's not much focus put on that. And then there's ... a real focus on immigration reform, which has enormous potential for our GDP and economic growth, as well as fairness and dealing with our borders.

Q: I've heard you speak many times. You came into this job with a solid handle on economic policy, but you alluded to the breadth of the Commerce Department's responsibilities. What's the subject you've had to study up on the most?

A: Trade. I think one of the most important initiatives I'll have during my tenure is to really focus on trade. ... There are many people in this room who run global businesses, but only 1 percent of American businesses export. And 60 percent of those companies export to only one country. So we have enormous potential, and if you add to that, the fact that only 35 percent of Americans have a passport, there's a disconnect between the fact that 95 percent of consumers are outside the United States, and we're not addressing their needs. I think there needs to be a big culture shift in the country about exporting.

Q: You're 100 days in. What's been your biggest ask of the White House? What have you needed most from them?

A: One of the interesting things about being in my job is you don't control your budget. Congress controls your budget, the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) has a say in your budget. One of my big asks is around protecting the National Weather Service. We have to invest in that infrastructure, and it's easy to put off. But we have to frankly invest in satellites and in the ships and the buoys (that help generate the hurricane and tornado warnings). First off, it supports a multibillion-dollar industry. The Weather Channel, and I love David Kenny, but we are his data. I know he manipulates it and changes it and makes it far more interesting than the way we deliver it. But frankly, the taxpayer is providing that.

Q: NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is more than half your budget, right?

A: Yes, and about half of that is the coastlines and the fish and those issues. And the other half is the National Weather Service. (Protecting that budget is important) particularly given that climate change is having an enormous impact: $100 billion was the cost of Katrina. $50 billion was the cost of Sandy. We need more than just the data to predict the weather over the next week or two. We need to really be able to focus on what's going to flood and what's the cost of repeated damage done by the weather to our country, and should we be allowing building in these places?

Q: A number of savvy Chicagoans — Mayor Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Bill Daley, who's here — have gone to D.C. and come back saying they were a bit disgusted by how the town works. I'm going to quote our mayor, "I left Washington because it's a crap town." Is it really that bad? And what makes it such a dagger-in-the-back place? I know you're a fan of "House of Cards."

A: My experience right now has been very positive. The other Cabinet members have been really great to work with. (White House chief of staff) Denis McDonough has really encouraged us to work together. So that's been very positive. It's not so often you have the secretary of commerce and the secretary of labor working hand-in-glove with one another.

Q: The rollout of HealthCare.gov has been flawed. But what many people don't know is that small businesses are in a similar boat as individuals, in terms of access to the website. What is your involvement in this? Are businesses asking you for help? Or asking you for delays?

A: I don't really have a role. I've had several businesses make comments about it, at which point I've tried to be an ombudsman and get them to the experts to help them. But it hasn't been a big topic for me.

Q: I went to a wedding in New Hampshire over the summer, and I happened to be sitting next to someone who worked at the Commerce Department. He gave you high marks for spending your first week or two there in the employee cafeteria, just going around and talking to people. I'm sure you heard many things that you expected, but what did you learn from those discussions that was unexpected?

A: One of the things that I found was a Commerce Department that had been without consistent leadership for quite a while. We hadn't had a secretary for over a year. So morale was pretty low. So I did what anybody in this room would do. The first thing I did was I met people at the front door my first couple of days and introduced myself. And what was shocking about that was that I met a number of people who said they'd never met the secretary before. And they said, "I've worked here 25 years, and I've never met the secretary before." And I do tend to wander around, and that often causes a little stir. But it's not anything you wouldn't do in your own business, which is wander around and meet the people, talk to folks, talk about what's going on. I also went to every department in the building, and they're several thousand people in the building. And I brought them Garrett's popcorn with the Chicago skyline. And I introduced myself, and they introduced themselves to me. And they told me what they did. And it was a great way for me to begin to understand. The titles are totally different in government than in the private sector. And so trying to understand who does what, and they tell you what their title is, it doesn't necessarily translate. So for me it was a great way to understand what people were doing and break the ice and begin to try and change the morale.

Q: You mentioned NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology. And another thing they do is set cryptographic standards. And this has now come into play in the Edward Snowden-National Security Agency issue. Right now, NIST is reviewing the cryptographic standards that protect us from online eavesdropping. What is your role going forward?

A: My deputy, think of it as your chief operating officer, ran NIST for four years. So he's really our point person along with the staff at NIST. There's a cybersecurity framework, which is what you're referring to, which is right now out for public comment. There are a couple of things you'd be shocked about, at least I was — was how much public input we get before we put out regulations or standards. There's an enormous process of getting public feedback. Anyway, to answer your question, NIST is playing a leadership role in working with the private sector, and we believe it should be private-sector-led to set the cybersecurity framework.

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