The True Public Servant

tclark@govexec.com

Timothy B. Clark

W ith the death of Elliot L. Richardson on Dec. 31, our country lost a man who set an example time after time of the most valuable attributes of the true public servant. His departure offers an opportunity to reflect on the needs of public service today.

Readers of Government Executive will readily agree, I think, that Richardson offers an unusual example of devotion to public sector concerns. He stands apart because virtually all of his service in the federal government was in political jobs, requiring Senate confirmation. Most people who choose government as a career do so by joining federal bureaucracies in the civil service, the foreign service or the military. Only a few spend most of their lives in the fickle world of political stewardship.

That world is fickle in part because of the high risks it entails. At the most obvious level, political jobs disappear when the White House reverts to another party. Also, political appointees are the targets for people who don't like the policies they espouse; in divided government it is impossible to please both Capitol Hill and administration overseers, not to mention feuding interest groups. Ethical traps abound, and there's no shortage of critical overseers ready to blow the whistle. Cabinet members Bruce Babbitt, Henry Cisneros and Mike Espy are examples from this administration.

To survive without blemish is difficult indeed. Richardson did so with distinction, serving as Attorney General and as Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Commerce, and Secretary of Health Education and Welfare in different administrations. He also held the posts of undersecretary of State and ambassador to Great Britain, and, in Massachusetts, of lieutenant governor and attorney general. His reputation as a man who put principle ahead of politics was cemented when he resigned as U.S. Attorney General in October 1973 after refusing President Nixon's request to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

A lawyer with high earning potential when he wasn't in government, Richardson still devoted much time and energy to public causes. He served on Paul Volcker's National Commission on the Public Service in 1989, and in 1996 published a book, Reflections of a Radical Moderate (Pantheon), voicing his concerns and ideas about strengthening our democracy. When Richardson and I were among members of a screening panel for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship program last March, I could tell he was as touched as the rest of us by the interest in public service evidenced by applicants for the awards.

The list of people who have, like Richardson, devoted their lives to public management at high political levels
isn't terribly long. My roster would include Volcker, Elmer Staats, Pat Moynihan, Alice Rivlin, Larry Eagleburger, Dick Cheney, Frank Carlucci, Carla Hills, Dick Darman, Stu Eizenstat, June Gibbs Brown, Donna Shalala, Mort Downey and Alan Greenspan. This excludes, I know, many who have made elective politics the focus of their careers, including the last three Presidents, many members of Congress and the current Secretary of Defense. To be sure, we need good people in elected office, but the need is even greater, I believe, for highly capable people to step forward in leadership roles in the executive branch.

Timothy B. Clark

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

    Download
  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

    Download
  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

    Download
  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

    Download
  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.