A great speech on why to go into public service


(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
March 18, 2013

Tom Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Can you remember the exact moment you chose to go into public service?

Bill Corr, the deputy secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), asked that question earlier this month to 75 graduates of a leadership training and development program run by the Center for Government Leadership.

Speaking to the group of GS-14s and GS-15s, Corr talked about the important role played by career civil servants, the challenges and obstacles they face, and the opportunities available to be innovative and serve the nation.

Corr said he signed up for government service because he wanted to help people, and knew those in the room felt the same way. His passion and message hit home for the graduating class, and served as a strong reminder that working for the government is not just about getting a paycheck, but about the mission and making a difference.

Below are excerpts from Corr’s remarks to the graduates:

“I’ve been in government long enough to know that as GS-14s and GS-15s your effectiveness can determine whether our government succeeds and whether it meets its obligation to the public. While the political appointees help determine which direction we go in, it’s up to the career leaders to actually get us there. As leaders in the civil service, you set the tone for thousands of employees who look to you for guidance and inspiration. You are the key to whether our government does a good job for our people, and that is a lofty responsibility.

Public service has never faced as stern a test as it does today. People are watching our government, and with this challenge comes an opportunity. People are thirsty for quality government. They want to be reminded of that distinctly American feeling that theirs is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, a government that works for them. They want leaders like you who stand up and make our government stand out.

I’m so pleased to see how motivated the 75 graduates in this room are because you have leadership responsibility. I know how motivated career employees can be. In fact, when I became deputy secretary at HHS, my first job was to identify a senior leadership team that could match the energy and enthusiasm of our career employees. We told them that the people who work here through every administration are committed to our mission, ‘If you are a senior leader, you’ve got to lead and you’ve got to be at the top of your game because they are.’

I hope you will take your energy, your motivation, your desire to serve your country, and inject it into your departments as your careers progress. Be the leaders that you’ve always wanted to see in your government. Be the leaders that the American people expect you to be. Don’t wait for others to create the next great government program or come up with the next great innovation, and don’t lose the spirit of service that brought you here in the first place.

I bet everyone in this room can remember the moment when you decided to go into public service. For me it came shortly after law school when I was directing four community-owned health care centers in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Tennessee and Southeastern Kentucky. My four years working with those community health centers shaped my commitment to public service and my lifelong interest in health and human services issues. I came to Washington with the intention of staying for two years. I wanted to find out if this was a place where I could make a real and lasting difference for the American people, and for the lives of those people who came into those health centers in East Tennessee. That was 36 years ago this month.

I’ve spent 18 years as a staff member in the Congress, nine years at HHS and I wouldn’t trade one day for the opportunities and for the rewards that have come from that service.

We each have different stories about how we got into public service, and I’m sure there’s a variety of motivations about why we are here now, but we’ve all made a common discovery. We are in an arena where real change can happen. It is an arena where real leadership matters. It is an arena where a good idea can touch the lives of millions of Americans.”

Does Corr’s speech resonate with you? In the comments section, tell us why you chose public service and how you believe your work is making a difference. You can also send me an email at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

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