Top U.S. Mint officials honored for making change

klunney@govexec.com

Successful partnerships between political appointees and career executives in government are founded on common goals, a mutual respect for individuality, and the ability to embrace and weather change. That's exactly the philosophy that helped former U.S. Mint director Philip N. Diehl and the agency's deputy director, John P. Mitchell, bring about a dramatic turnaround at the Mint.

In recognition of their accomplishments, the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration and Government Executive have named Diehl and Mitchell co-winners of their annual Leadership Award. The award honors those who break down barriers in government, develop strong partnerships in the executive and legislative branches, and improve the public's view of government.

Diehl, whose successor is expected to be former Rep. Jay Johnson, D-Wis., is widely recognized as the motivating force behind the Mint's dramatic transformation from a stereotypical government bureaucracy to a booming business with approximately $2.5 billion in annual revenues and a reinvigorated workforce. Mitchell is an experienced civil servant with an extensive background in financial management and leadership of federal organizations.

Diehl and Mitchell have reshaped and reinvented the Mint over the last six years, transforming the agency's customer service, administrative operations, workforce morale, technology and financial management. With the launch last year of the hugely popular 50 State Quarters Program and the release this year of the new "golden dollar," featuring Sacagawea, the Native American woman who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition through the American West, the Mint-and coin collecting-are making a big comeback.

Diehl and Mitchell came to the Mint in late 1993. At first, Mitchell, who had been serving as acting deputy chief financial officer at the Treasury Department, was a special assistant to Diehl, focusing on revamping the agency's financial operations. He became deputy director in 1995. At that time, coin sales were down, less than half of customers' orders were shipped within eight weeks of purchase, and employees had picketed the agency's field office in Denver to protest management practices.

Mitchell and Diehl knew that rebuilding the agency would involve reviving public interest in coin currency. They pledged to deliver 95 percent of the agency's products to customers within two weeks and negotiated a labor-management partnership with the union representing agency employees. Now the Mint ranks second only to Mercedes-Benz North America in customer satisfaction, as measured by the American Customer Satisfaction index.

"Politics is the art of the possible; what we have done at the Mint is the art of the impossible," Diehl said. He and Mitchell clicked when they met and forged a bond based on shared goals, but also on mutual respect for their individual responsibilities in making the changes happen. "We understood the differences in our roles, which was important in allowing us to see what each one of us had to do individually, in order to accomplish the mission before us," Diehl said.

Mitchell said the first time he went to lunch with Diehl, the two got so caught up in exchanging ideas and brainstorming about how to transform Mint operations that two hours passed before either got around to touching his meal.

Both Diehl and Mitchell pepper their conversation with words like "vision," "imagination," and "risk-taking." While they have decades of experience in the nuances of public policy, finance and administration, both say it is their shared belief in the power of imagination and change that made their partnership at the Mint work. They have blended the best of the public and private sectors-government's commitment to serving the American people and private industry's embrace of efficiency and change.

Neither Diehl nor Mitchell came to the Mint with guns blazing, or with the presumption that federal employees would immediately jump on the change bandwagon. They knew they needed to persuade stakeholders ranging from Mint managers to Congress to guards at Ft. Knox that their vision for the agency was the right one.

"It takes a heroic effort to transform these federal agencies," Diehl said. But he is convinced the Mint's transformation can be replicated elsewhere in government. Although Diehl concedes that the Mint, which focuses heavily on the retail business of selling coins, is different in many ways from other agencies, he notes that its overall mission of serving the public is the same. Diehl said when he was asked to speak at a strategic planning conference at the U.S. Geological Survey- agency whose structure, mission and goals are very different from those of the Mint's-he was struck by their similar strategic challenges.

Developing a partnership between a political appointee and a top career official to push fundamental change takes effort and the right blend of personalities, Diehl said. He acknowledged that the "overly partisan environment" in Washington is a major impediment for appointees and career employees to overcome. Mitchell also noted that resistance from within an agency can be a major barrier as well. As any bureaucracy- public or private-becomes larger and older, he said, there is a tendency in its the workforce to resist change and become territorial.

While such challenges are real, Mitchell said, many of the barriers senior executives and political appointees face are self-imposed. Transforming an agency requires looking past these boundaries and seeing opportunities, he argued.

"Embrace change, take risks, and imagine how great your agency can be, and how significant your contribution to the American public can be," Mitchell said.

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