Presenting a special Sunday guest commentary...
For conservatives, the recent government shutdown is serving a dual purpose. On one level it’s an opportunity to express their dislike of the Affordable Care Act and an attempt to change or repeal the law. By using appropriations as the vehicle to enact these changes, conservatives have created an opportunity that drives another (albeit related) part of their agenda: reducing the size and scope of government. The thinking goes that when the government shuts down, the average citizen tends to find that their daily lives go on as usual prompting the question: “Gee, what does the government really do?” In turn, this gives further credence to conservative assertions that government is too expensive and ineffective.
One thing that is certain is that our nation is at another interesting crossroad, with liberals and conservatives arguing about the size and the role of our government. What gets lost in this debate is the notion that regardless of scope, we need a government that works better, and is constantly looking for efficiencies and creative solutions that deliver better results with fewer costs.
This is a notion that both sides of the isle can support. I saw this first-hand working for both Democratic and Republican administrations at the US EPA. During the Clinton Administration, Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government” program brought creativity and a myriad of new approaches to old problems. In the Bush Administration, a slightly less glamorous approach called the Program Assessment Rating Tool brought a focus on strategic planning, budgeting and using real data to assess program effectiveness, creating a culture more focused on results and efficiency.
Sequesters, shutdowns and furloughs are blunt instruments that only make government more inefficient, costing taxpayers and business alike in the long-term. Indeed, this indiscriminant treatment of the workforce serves to discourage managers with these needed skills from entering public service.
While at EPA, I spent several years working directly for Ira Leighton, who essentially served as a COO of our regional office and a mentor to me. Ira is one of the best examples of a civil servant who made government work better. He regularly worked a 12-hour day, not including speaking at a breakfast meeting or attending a community hearing at night, which he did on a regular basis.
Ira would have thrived in the private sector. He was an engineer by training, but had the instincts of a business manager and was a natural leader. He had that rare ability to think strategically, to formulate and communicate his vision, focus on detail and boundless energy to execute. His approach was to work tirelessly to understand everyone’s perspective, forming a strategy based on heavy stakeholder input. Once he had framed his vision, he would work relentlessly to engage constituents with logic, data and natural salesmanship until everyone got on board; it proved to be a powerful approach for reaching solutions in landscape with a diverse set of stakeholders with distinctive points of view.
So instead of the private sector, he remained a public servant dedicated to making government more efficient, effective, and accountable to the people it served. He understood that the mission of EPA was to “protect human health and the environment” but he also knew that we needed to find creative, efficient solutions that posed as little impact on business as necessary. Or better yet, find a way to align the economic and environmental objectives.
I think Ira’s pragmatic approach to government and public service could, in this difficult political climate, help us focus on the bigger picture. If only we could send Ira down to Washington to work his magic. But unfortunately, that is no longer an option as Ira, at the age of 67 and after 41 years of public service, passed away while on a trip to DC for budget discussions; a trip I had done many times with him over the years. He may never have gotten the retirement that he always insisted was just around the corner, but I know that he followed his passion to the end.
I worry that the shutdown and the denigration of government workers and government service will lead the next Ira to make the decision to forgo public service. To me that is one of the most significant impacts of the shutdown that, with all the yelling and finger pointing, is lost on most people.
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