To each of the 190 Fellows—let me be among the first to offer my congratulations on your graduation from one of government’s premier development programs. And to the faculty, sponsoring executives, mentors, and agency representatives here today—thank you for your investment in good government. You understand that technology does not change government, or systems or money—people do. You are in the vanguard of a sweep of forward-thinking initiatives that has been launched, government-wide, to better serve the American taxpayer. As I see it, your role is pivotal in preparing a next generation of leaders to serve at the top echelons of government as we:
Graduates—yours is no small achievement. You’ve thrived in a demanding course of study, and are well-prepared to deliver a good return on the investment that the Government Fellows program has made in you. As proven do-ers, team-builders, innovators, problem-solvers, and collaborators, you are poised to take your place among the next-generation of leaders who will take our government well into this century. Well done!
You know, there’s a distinct set of defining qualities that has distinguished American leadership in the 20th century:
Those qualities were essential to our country’s 18th century birth as a nation … and now to the 21st century re-birth of government. If we look at Patrick Henry’s famous Give me liberty or give me death speech, he speaks about the lamp of experience. He said, I know of no other way of judging the future but by the past.
For each of you, the lamp of experience illuminates the hard-earned successes of your professional past, just as it illuminates the promise of your professional future. Your graduation signals that you are positioned to light the way to the future, much like Patrick Henry and his contemporaries did more than 200 years ago. Your work will push you to examine and rediscover these qualities of leadership in yourselves. I know it has for me.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. In the early 90’s, Governor Weld of Massachusetts had fired the mayor and every member of the Board of Aldermen for the city of Chelsea. A diverse, inner-urban suburb of 40,000 residents, Chelsea is a gateway into Boston. Twenty years ago, it was suffering from serious fiscal problems; although corrupt and broke, it still maintained its fierce pride, optimism, and resiliency. The city went into receivership under James Carlin, a highly respected businessman and leader. As part of his team, my colleagues and I were granted extraordinary powers over revenue and expense, fees and programs, people and acquisition. In short, every bureaucrat’s dream that, just once, for a moment, they could wave a wand and eliminate all the burdensome rules and red tape that seem to slow things down.
Over time, we found ourselves using more and more of the consultative, collaborative, and respectful ways that government uses to achieve progress-for-the-many, while preserving the rights of all. Our freedom to innovate and our focus on results eventually brought us back to those qualities of leadership I mentioned earlier. And as we battled back to a balanced budget in just 10 months, restructured the schools, rejuvenated the management infrastructure, and cleaned up the police department, we did it shoulder-to-shoulder with public sector employees who cared and who wouldn’t quit.
Like Chelsea, in 30,000 cities and counties across the country—in all 50 states and in the federal government itself—almost 20 million, first-rate public employees have helped make America a first-rate country.
This is an exciting time to be in government—a time of great change, of great progress, and of great promise.
Some people search for a lifetime for a job that has an impact. People in government—people dedicated to the public good—hold in their hands the opportunity to have a lasting effect on their communities and their country. Your decision to devote your career to public service speaks not only to your high-minded personal imperatives, but to your commitment to take ownership of what our country will become, and to find solutions to the pressing problems of our day.
We are in a time of transition and change, and change, by its very nature, is problematic. It shakes up the status-quo and upsets tradition. It also generates new requirements and puts a premium on certain qualities, knowledge, and skills—like those you’ve gained over the past year. Cutting-edge knowledge and skills that can be leveraged to help drive government’s wide-ranging transformation.
As you know, there are a number of factors at work. We are facing new challenges, domestic and global, and new demographics, like the graying of the workforce. Baby Boomers are retiring in unprecedented numbers and there is an institutional brain drain that is going out the door with them. In their wake are the incoming Millennials, tech-savvy, with new ideas and new approaches that are influencing everything from dress codes to work-life balance.
We are seeing new and rapidly emerging technologies. We are confronted with the rising expectations of our clients—the American taxpayer. Much of it is driven by consumer-obsessed corporations that operate on the razor’s edge of R&D, marketing, and customer service. Think Amazon, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, ACE Hardware, Nordstrom. Here’s an example: How much time does it take to create a production environment, including servers, software, security, network connections in a leading technology integration firm these days? A month? Six months with our acquisition process? Try 45 minutes!
The question that comes to mind is, if the private sector can provide cutting-edge products and services, why can’t Government? The answer lies in complexity. In inflexibility. In failure to adapt to a changing world. And in lack of leadership.
In this digital, mobile, virtual age, when communications circle the globe at the-speed-of-light—it’s not acceptable to take a year to award a government contract. Or when a company like Federal Express can promise to deliver a package, anywhere in the world within 24 hours—Absolutely, Positively Overnight, as they’ve said—it’s not acceptable for it to take weeks to transfer records from one Government office to another. Or worse yet, lose them. These are every-day challenges that transcend ideology or politics. In the business of government, business as usual will no longer do. And the fact is, government IS changing. There is a host of initiatives underway in every department and agency across government, all with an eye toward:
Not long ago, these organizational imperatives were considered the province of the private sector alone. They were dismissed as not applicable to government. Why? Because government is different … it just doesn’t work that way.
That view has changed. If government doesn’t work that way—with high-performance and top-notch customer service—then why not? Everyone from the President and his Cabinet to the Partnership for Public Service is convinced that every agency can and should operate on a par with the best-run, the most-respected companies in America.
As I say that, I’m thinking of my own department, where our National Cemetery Administration consistently is rated by the American Customer Satisfaction Index as one of the highest-scoring organizations in the country—public or private. Yes, we even beat Lexus, GE, and Google in customer service!
My point here is that there are already things that government does extraordinarily well. We need to find these pockets of success and scale them across government. We know we can do it because it’s already been done. One example is the aggressive strides being made to reconstitute OPM’s hiring practices, management processes, and training approaches. Director Berry is working on the cutting edge of the people factor, instituting progressive policies drawn from the best practices of highly-successful companies.
On another front, we can look to efforts to streamline and reinvigorate our massive federal acquisitions system. We’re reinvesting in its workforce, structure, and process to improve its overall value. And it’s no secret that if we are to solve many long-standing problems, we must leverage business process redesign and information technology—the undisputed service platform of the 21st century. And we are doing that, too.
We see strides made in strengthening the principle of inclusion—the cornerstone of our democracy, as well as in transparency and collaboration.
In my view, many of the systemic problems that have hobbled government for far too long are giving way. Transformation is a work in progress. And the nearly 3,000 Government Fellows working across the federal landscape are progress-promoters.
Although we all know that government operations are changing, we also know that change does not come easily. People naturally resist change. It’s like the old story of Henry Warner, of Warner Brothers Pictures, who in1927, when asked by one of his people about looking into that remarkable new invention called talking pictures, he purportedly retorted, Yeah, well, who the hell wants to hear actors talk anyway? Now that’s serious resistance to change!
But if we are to create a more responsive government—one attuned to the taxpayer’s needs—we must change. Not for the sake of change alone, but for the sake of 300 million Americans who will reap its benefits.
The course has been charted. Our federal ship of state is navigating under a new construct—a paradigm for high-performing systems, for meaningful metrics to gauge our progress, and for achieving a 21st century government. The Fellows Program figures prominently in that effort. It has a great track record. It excels at turning out leaders who can successfully tackle our government’s problems; manage change and challenge in times of uncertainty; and leverage progress for better results.
It’s been said, From those to whom much is given, much is expected. Your graduation today carries with it great responsibility and great opportunity. The responsibility to make a difference, and the opportunity to help shape the future of this country. Your mission is not to be just caretakers of the status quo, but agents of change. That means taking all that you’ve learned from this developmental experience and applying it to your own organizations.
Learn about and master your own agency’s strategies for change, and think through what you can contribute to our government’s common cause. Within your sphere of influence, think critically about opportunities to forge improved services, programs, and benefits for the American people.
Leverage the power of partnerships, and strive to cut across organizational lines and hierarchies with a can-do attitude.
Hold on to your integrity, families, and health.
Take the initiative. Work to create a spirit of innovation. Don’t be risk-averse—it’s the oxygen of progress. Government simply must innovate to operate responsibly in an era of efficiency, instant communications, and ever-greater levels of convenience. Remember that innovation in the public sector is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity.
Leave your mark on the programs, policies, and services—the resources and assets charged to you.
Know that every initiative, every new policy or practice, and every solution you offer to long-standing or emerging problems will be looked on as the measure of your mettle as a leader. The ones you tackle, and the ones you step over.
Keep the lamp of experience close at hand and let it light your way.
And, last, keep in touch; keep the bonds tight among yourselves. The relationships forged here will be a source of collective support and strength as you face the challenges of the years ahead.
Communicate with one another and with the host of stakeholders in good government. Customers as well as colleagues; with your agency and with others.
Today’s challenges—and tomorrow’s, yet unknown—demand that America’s best and brightest choose a career in public service. Together with free enterprise, government is a part of that great engine that drives this country, day after day, year after year, century after century.
Let me leave you with the words of another public servant, President John Kennedy, who, a half-century ago, transformed the image of a federal career and inspired a generation of young Americans to serve the public interest. In his state of the union address of 1961—in times of challenge not unlike our own—he shared his admiration for those who step forward to serve our country through government service.
Let the public service be a proud and lively career. And let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government … be able to say with pride and honor in future years: I served the United States government in that hour of our nation’s need.
Congratulations to each of you. Thank you for your service and best wishes for success in the hard work that lies ahead.