The Privilege of Public Service

GAO-07-192CG: Published: Oct 24, 2006. Publicly Released: Oct 24, 2006.

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This speech was given by the Comptroller General before the Roger W. Jones Award for Executive Leadership Ceremony at the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. on October 24, 2006. The namesake of this award, Roger Jones, had a distinguished career in government, one that spanned many decades and a number of major departments and agencies. In particular, Roger Jones was known as a champion of education for federal managers and executives, and he received a number of high honors for his efforts to improve the quality of public administration. During my tenure as the head of three federal agencies, I've found that outstanding public servants share certain traits: great vision, solid values, and a deep commitment to the mission of their agency. To keep pace with the challenges that are coming, our government must also change. Government transformation is essential. In my view, the first order of business is to restore fiscal discipline. Washington needs to face facts and improve transparency over where we are financially and where we're headed fiscally. The simple but powerful truth is that effective government requires a first-rate workforce. To tackle current and emerging problems, government needs men and women who are able to think strategically, creatively, and decisively. Public service is a privilege. It's a chance to make peoples' lives better and their futures brighter. Public service is a calling where individuals and organizations can help build a better future for our nation and our world.

To help restore fiscal discipline, among other things, we need to impose meaningful budget controls on both the tax and the spending sides of the ledger. Members of Congress should also have more explicit information on the long-term costs of spending and tax bills--before they vote on them. With its $8 trillion price tag, the Medicare prescription drug benefit is a glaring example of what's wrong with the current system. Nothing less than a top-to-bottom review of federal activities is needed to determine whether agencies are meeting their objectives. Congress and the President should decide which policies and programs remain priorities, which should be overhauled, and which have simply outlived their usefulness. In particular, entitlement reform is essential. We need to restructure Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and make these programs solvent and sustainable for future generations. We have recent examples in the private sector that show what happens when individuals and institutions lack or stray from a set of core values. At Enron, Worldcom, and other companies, the unethical behavior of some top executives, auditors, and other professionals led to bankruptcies and restatements that have harmed countless shareholders, employees, and retirees. People lost their investments, their jobs, and their pensions. Public confidence took a big hit, and it's going to take years to rebuild that trust. In closing, the two people we're honoring this evening represent qualities that are essential to the future of the civil service. Government transformation isn't going to happen without people like David Altwegg and William Gimson. I often say that people are government's most important asset, and people will determine whether our government keeps pace with changing times and delivers real results that meet the needs of the modern age. To succeed, we're going to need more elected, appointed, and career government leaders with courage, integrity, creativity, and a commitment to stewardship.

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