Al Gore: Feds Have America’s Back

Sarah Scully/

Civil servants always will have the “American people’s back” despite dysfunctional politics, former Vice President Al Gore told federal employees on Monday.

“I have never lost faith in you, the career people who keep this thing going in spite of all curveballs thrown in front of you, the latest being the sequester, well, the latest is -- what’s the date today?” the head of an initiative to reform government during the Clinton administration told a standing room-only crowd of federal employees at the Excellence in Government conference, sponsored by the Government Executive Media Group, in Washington.

The former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee praised federal workers for their intelligence, perseverance and commitment in a wide-ranging speech in which he reminisced about his days leading the effort to make government cost less and operate more efficiently.

“The people who work in the federal government know better than anyone else what is wrong and how to fix it,” said Gore, who spoke at the first Excellence in Government conference in the 1990s. “Workers know, they understand the problems better than managers do. The people who are closest to what needs to be fixed know best how to fix it. Now, the problem is, they have learned through many years of experience that somebody who sticks his neck out might get his head chopped off,” the former veep said, referring to government’s traditional aversion to risk-taking and risk-takers.

Gore said the Clinton administration’s reinventing government movement during the 1990s, known officially as the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, started three “revolutions” that are embedded in government management today—a focus on results-oriented performance, innovation and customers -- namely, the American public. “Today that performance culture is alive and well, and you can find it in all parts of government,” including at the state and local levels, Gore said. He pointed out that the last two administrations have continued the government reform mandate of the 1990s, citing the Bush administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) and the Obama administration’s creation of a chief performance officer. And both administrations have continued the customer service surveys that started under Clinton to gauge the quality and type of service the public expects from its government.

Gore said the legacy of innovation is perhaps the most important of the three concepts. He talked about the difficulty then and now of changing a government culture that is resistant to risk for fear of making a misstep. “If you are not making mistakes, you aren’t trying hard enough,” he said, noting that the default position for government is often “zero tolerance” for any mistake, even one taken in pursuit of excellence and innovation. While technology was, and remains, a big part of innovation, empowering employees to do their jobs well is vital, said the former senator from Tennessee. He recounted the “permission slips” that many agencies handed out as wallet cards to employees to help them make sense of their jobs. The list of six points resonates as much today as it did then:

  • Is it right for my customers?
  • Is it legal and ethical?
  • Is it something I am willing to be accountable for?
  • Is it consistent with my agency’s mission?
  • Am I using my time wisely?
  • If your answer to all of the above is yes, don’t ask permission. You already have it, just do it.

Gore talked about how much he enjoys it when people come up to him, which he says is frequently, talking about how they or someone they know won a Hammer Award, which were given to feds who made significant achievements to helping reinvent government. The award’s name was a play on the Pentagon’s famously expensive hardware costs and featured a $6 hammer framed against black velvet. “This black velvet came from the dumpster behind Graceland,” Gore joked on Monday, holding up a sample award to the audience. “I love Graceland by the way,” he added, in a nod to his home state.

Gore also predicted challenging times ahead for federal employees of every agency, as the country grapples with changes in everything from trade and labor to agriculture and the environment, which he has made one of his signature issues. The government “during this turbulent time” is going “to require the kind of leadership that civil servants of the last century can barely imagine.”

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