Dec 31 2009

Making a Difference

You may spend your days cranking out IT policies and tweaking systems designs, but success lies in remembering that you have only one purpose: public service.
Photo: Zaid Hamid

Service in the public sector is exactly that, “service.” Public service is about making a difference in the government’s service to citizens, who live, work, pay taxes and depend on the government in some fashion in their lives. It is the mission of public service that draws most government employees to their jobs and motivates them to do those jobs well.

So, the first step to being successful is to define and demonstrate what success means: making a difference in the mission of public service. Working from the assumption that we all share the mission perspective, I suggest that anyone in or considering public service must build his or her career on three pillars:

• Personal knowledge

• Teamwork

• Leadership in a changing world

Having recently left the government, after 14 years of service at the Environmental Protection Agency and 15 more before that in state and local government, I can tell you that these are areas I have failed at from time to time or watched others fail at more than once while on the job. These three pillars might not be profound or witty — and they’re certainly not technical — but they are enduring principles that public servants would do well to remind themselves of regularly.

Personal Knowledge

One of the most difficult things for any of us to do is to grasp our own strengths and weaknesses. Yet, only by understanding our own skills and abilities can we maximize the value we bring. This requires testing ourselves in different roles, listening to things we might not want to hear, seeking and taking advice from seasoned professionals and taking some risks.

In knowing one’s self, there are some critical paths to success. Determine what gaps or difficulties you might face in an assignment. Then determine how to improve your own skills. Finally, surround yourself with people best able to fill any gaps. My experience is that well-rounded teams, combining differing viewpoints and ideas, always outshine monolithic teams with only one or a few skills and perspectives (whether the strength is tactical focus, detail attention or great strategy).


One tough area we all encounter is how to be on a team when we disagree with some of the other members’ issues or approaches. Learning how to raise concerns and persuade others in a way that obtains an audience and gets the appropriate action is not always easy. It requires judging the personality of other team members, especially those with more seniority. Even so, there are basics that apply in most situations.

First, you don’t have to agree with everything the boss says — but how you disagree is critical. It’s much easier to get others to listen by finding common ground. People are especially touchy if they think they’re being disagreed with because their point of view hasn’t been given a fair hearing or there’s a perception that you are just unwilling to change. And since you have a stake in the team and boss succeeding, you must assure the team that your ideas are meant to be constructive.

Second, choose well if you must disagree on a major issue. Granted, if the ideas are unethical or illegal, you must not back down. But don’t confuse personal opinion with legal or ethical issues. Allowing disagreements to surface often improves discussion and, therefore, the project and the mission.

Finally, remember the old saying: “You can get a lot done if you don’t care who gets the credit.” This is so true on large government projects. So make sure to share success up and down the chain — with your peers, subordinates and bosses. That’s how teams thrive.

Leadership in a Changing World

Management guru Peter Drucker was fond of saying: “One cannot manage change; one can only be ahead of it. … Change is the norm.” Making a difference usually involves change. So, those in government must be change agents. Whether the change is big or little, continue to evolve and learn every day. Help the organization do the same. To that end, when facing big challenges:

1. Be Bold in Acceptance of Responsibility: In other words, embrace the job’s duties and responsibilities and meet them head-on. Big challenges require action that is not always understood or appreciated at first — sometimes never. If the mission is what matters, the choice is easy.

2. Be Bold, Not Rash or Foolish: While you must be bold in accepting responsibility, you also must be wise in deciding how to tackle that responsibility. It’s crucial to map the organization’s needs, risks, assets and strengths. Then decide how and where to fulfill your responsibilities. Contrary to what some oversight organizations want, that means tackling the risks in order of priority, not writing policies forever. It also means writing policies at key points, contrary to what some technology folks want.

3. Combine Bold Strategy with Careful Tactical Execution: Good ideas and strategies often founder on poor execution. In government, that often leads to a determination that the idea was wrong; we’ve been known to kill great ideas rather than fix the implementation issues. The result: Agencies often get only one chance to drive a strategy home. Therefore, in addition to having a measured strategic approach, you must also sweat the details. Thomas Edison once said that invention is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. In other words, no matter how inspired, the strategy or decision alone won’t create success.

So remember, your time in public service is just that. Put the mission first, and others will follow. Know and improve on your own skills, bring others with complementary skills into the circle, be a constructive part of the team, then when it’s your turn to lead, do so boldly but not rashly. No matter where you are in the hierarchy, these skills and principles will serve you — and the public — well.