Ben Henderson (2014) currently serves as the director of operations and cabinet affairs for Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado. He has spent the last decade working in city and state government focusing on budgeting, economic development, and public administration. Ben lives in Denver with his fiancée and dog and is a huge marching-band nerd.
1. Describe your work and how public policy impacts how you manage your organization. I am the day-to-day liaison to the cabinet, managing all state-agency operations while fostering a one-team mindset across the entire executive branch. My days consist mostly of addressing the crisis of the moment. But I also work with agencies to build skills in performance management, process improvement, and professional development. Gov. Polis’s administration is laser-focused on our “Bold 4” policy priorities, including: Early-childhood education, which started with implementing free full-day kindergarten; Lowering the cost of health care; Achieving 100% renewable energy by 2040; Fiscal reform and economic development. It is my job to ensure that state agencies are aligned around these policy priorities and are implementing them successfully. I focus on the “how” after policy leaders have decided on the “what.” My team and I do this in lots of ways, but our primary tool is creation of metrics that ensure accountability towards the Bold 4, as well as another 250-plus administration key priorities. We track, report and publish these metrics on the Governor’s Dashboard.
2. How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work? I began my position three days before Colorado’s first COVID-19 case. Needless to say, my plans and expectations for what my job would be went out the window pretty quickly thereafter. COVID-19 consumed everything we were doing, and my job became virus response all day, every day. We tapped into private-sector and military resources to build our emergency-response structure and worked around the clock to solve problems I couldn’t have fathomed just weeks before. We doubled the size of our public-health department. Our state lab typically spends $16 million a year but is now on track to spend more than $200 million this year. We saw unemployment rates higher than ever recorded, with a 1,200% spike in unemployment claims in early April. We transitioned more than 65% of state employees to telework in about a week-and-a-half. We now believe half of those folks may never come back to physically work in a state office again, and there are plans to sell off 1 million square feet of space. We have processed more than 250 executive orders on a wide range of issues. We made it easier to add surge capacity to our health-care system, protect and reduce the prison population, and allow county clerks to use technology to issue marriage certificates virtually.
I don’t need to tell this group that the impact of the virus on our culture is vaster than anything we understand yet. So far, Colorado is faring okay. We have won lots of battles and lost some others. We are proud of our use of science, and the data suggests that it has saved lives, especially our Dial Framework, which automatically ratchets social distancing up and down at the county level based on quantifiable metrics. This has been an exhausting year and it feels like we are only just now at halftime.
3. How has the Fellows Network been useful to you? First, I should point out that I know the Fellows Network is full of people fighting this virus every single day, and I am so thankful to all of you for your work and diligence keeping us safe. Beyond that, the Fellows Network has been incredibly useful to me in career development and personal growth. It is the foot in the door that helped me land in my current career path. I was recently hiring for a senior level position in Colorado state government and saw “Flinn-Brown” on a resume I was reviewing. Using the Network, it was easy for me to quickly confirm my original suspicions: this person was highly recommended, smart, and driven, and definitely deserved to be advanced to the next round.
4. What aspect of your public-service career has been the most rewarding and why? Helping real people. Public service is all about human interaction and being plugged into your community in a way that makes a positive impact. For me, those always appear as small human-focused moments. What comes to mind are conversations with neighbors about shared values, hearing from families who got assistance when they needed it the most, or helping team members achieve their goals.