Has the term "public service" lost meaning for our private corporations?

Keith Barratt
23 April 2007
Editor's note: Mr. Barratt's distinctive style is in part a product not only of his gifted writing, but of the British flavor of his syntax and spelling. Rather than practice a "foolish consistency to style guide gods," we've left his voice intact.

As some will know, I frequently refer back to my own experience in order to gain some greater insight into political events.

Doing so often gives me a less emotionally critical reaction than many to what is happening around us. Occasionally, I feel a separation between myself and those commenting in the blogs, who sometimes respond without acknowledgement that all politicians -- yes, even those that we support -- have to operate in the real world. It is a real world that is not particularly "clean," that has fuzzy rules and often requires some sleight of hand if one is going to be effective.

So, maybe I am slightly corrupted. Maybe I have done my own time as not a completely pure person and maybe I have not always served the goals of integrity and honesty as fully as I might. I don't know, it is for others to judge.

I do know that today I listened to Lurita Doan give evidence during the U.S. Congressional hearing on the General Services Administration and I was both shocked and angry by what I heard: truly shocked, but most of all angry, because Ms. Doan represented a critical part of what I have done in my life, and she shamed me and shamed many of those like me.

Ms. Doan is a person from the private sector who has been brought into government to head up an agency, an agency that by all accounts was inefficient and failing in many regards.

I listened to her opening statement and immediately empathised with her. She had to shift a huge bureaucracy and the resentful doggedness of others for whom she had oversight. She used all her private sector skills to set specific, challenging goals and drove to achieve them with a clear-sighted and forceful determination. Only those who have faced such a task will know the enormous courage and steel that is required to get an inert and unresponsive public sector to move in the direction that one sets for it.

It was when she started to respond to questions that I became concerned. It was a concern that turned into the real anger that has left me with a sense of disgust.

I am not going to deal with the detailed nature of her replies. They were appalling enough in their own right, but others can and will analyse those. It is one aspect only of her performancethat is the source of the abhorrence that motivates these comments of mine. It was her attitude to the members of Congress. Why her attitude has affected me in the way that it has requires that I relate it to my own personal experience. I do believe, furthermore, that what I saw today was not a simple occurrence related to one individual but an expression of all that is wrong with this Republican administration.

Nearly all my life has been spent at senior level in large corporations. The one exception is a short time that I spent as the director responsible for industrial relations and business development of a large public sector utility providing rail and passenger transport services to a substantial area of the UK.

My appointment was made by the Secretary of State for Transport -- at that time under Margaret Thatcher. Before appointment, the candidate had to be approved by its main client, which was the regional political authority. It also was in control of the Conservatives, but the selection panel was bi-partisan.

How and why I ended up in the job is another story, but it owes much to my wife insisting I meet with them on a day when I was claiming to be too busy. I did so and when the Chairman announced at the end of the day that -- even though I was deemed incredibly young for such a public appointment -- they were recommending me subject to the Government's approval, I still really had no firm intention to take it. So I was embarrassed to see it announced the next day in one of the Regional newspapers.

In the end, I took up the appointment and began the long hard task of turning the operational efficiency of the organisation around, despite the lack of enthusiasm of its unions and many of its managers. The British standard of productivity had a baseline that was some 18% lower than that which is used in the United States. Despite this weak benchmark, we were still only operating at a measured 50% of the low target. To get productivity up to 100% was the immensity of the task that I took on board, against a background of a regional political party in power who supported it but were reluctant to have problems. I also had some colleagues who largely sat back knowing, that at that time in the public sector, there were no additional rewards for achievement and a great deal of personal problems if one rocked the boat in the process of implementing change. Fortunately, I had a truly inspiring Director-General, who encouraged me and supported me against some of the backlash that my actions created.

So, you can see why I felt that Ms. Doan and I, when she sat down and began her testimony today, had much in common. Any bond that I felt at the beginning, however, quickly evaporated.

I need to go back to my personal experience. After two years, I had achieved many of the goals that I had set myself for the organisation. I was confident in my ability. I had put to good use the management science that an American organisation had trained me in and Harvard professors had honed. I had dealt successfully with one of the toughest union environments in the UK and had made some of the most sweeping changes in the industry. I was very young, had become increasingly ambitious and was ready for larger tasks that other organisations were beginning to talk to me about.

There was a regional election. Gone was the Conservative Chairman of the regional authority who, together with his wife, I had entertained on the yacht and with whom I had developed a reasonably close relationship. In his place was the Labour Party and an unknown lad as the replacement Chairman. He was an uneducated bloke, left school when he was sixteen and worked as a porter in the lowest manual grade in one of the largest urban railway stations in one of the cities that we served.

I remember our first meeting. It was the day after the election and it was a gathering late at night as the new caucus set about immediately to make changes. One of these changes was to one of the main productivity deals that I had negotiated. The deal was for them a repayment of a debt to the union in exchange for their help in getting them elected.

I went to that meeting with an offer letter in my back pocket that I knew that I was going to accept to take a much higher paid job with what was becoming, and became, one of the most successful businesses in Europe and, later, even world-wide. I had a secure independence from the labor-union negotiation situation in which I suddenly found myself.

Not only was I in total disagreement with what the new administration wanted, they did not have the power to demand it. The assets belonged to the utility, and along with the Director-General, we had just received, in preparation of the meeting, counsel's legal advice confirming the strength of our position.

The replacment Chairman was unlike any of the people with whom I usually deal, even amongst the trade unionists, and I am sure that I was exactly the sort of person that those in what we now call "old Labour" in the UK was seen as the enemy. It didn't matter. His first instinct was to respect my expertise. Mine was to accord him the respect due to that most powerful of all positions: as a representative of the people.

There was nothing in the legal opinion that we had received that referred to role of the people. It was all concerned with statutory powers and responsibilities. For some unconscious reason, this did not matter to me. Sure, I explained the relative powers that we had and the limitations on theirs. It was uncomfortable for a time. I knew, however, that we touched base with each other and would be able to accommodate our individual needs without rancour, when I said that I respected the role that he had as the newly elected representative of those whom we both served. There was no personal imperative to reach agreement, only the imperative of responding to the duty to those whom I served.

I know that what I have written may seem trite and rather insignificant, but for me it was the defining moment of what was to actually mark the end of my period in public service. It was sufficiently defining for me to feel real anger at Ms. Doan's behaviour.

You see, in the UK we don't "bang on" about how we are governed like you do in the States. We don't have civic classes like yours or talk that much about the "the People" and "the Constitution" or "the Flag." I wish, in many ways, that we did. Our democracy badly needs it. Yet, despite the lack of this, there is just a common understanding that, at the end of the day, our society is its citizens and they, not the monarchy, not the Ministers of State, not the government nor Parliament but they, the people, rule and those in government are their servants.

So just what was it that was dreadful to watch on C-Span? It was her attitude. She displayed all the excellent marks of a confident manager. She was forceful and clear and able to elucidate her goals. With this, I have no quarrel. Rightly or wrongly, she clearly felt that she was being made a political target, and she was ready and able to use her skills to address this concern. She did so well and again I have no quarrel with her doing so.

What I objected to was the basic assumption that she was talking among equals, strange though such a sentiment may sound to all those who simply take at superficial face value the declaration that we are all equal. So I need to explain what I mean.

At one stage, she expressed the desire to move on from the current anxieties of the Committee and for them together to work towards the necessary goals of her Department. The problem was she said it as if she was addressing her senior management team, not members of Congress representing the people of a great nation.

She was never rude but was frequently combative. Combative in the way that you are when a deal is being negotiated between two equal parties. She was never disrespectful but was frequently without respect. She demanded to be heard as an equal but failed to understand one fundamental fact of being a public servant. You are the servant of the public, not its equal. If you don't understand that and can't relate to that when talking to the representatives of the people, you do not understand the Constitution.

I could write much longer and in greater detail of how she displayed this ignorance of what public service is all about but what is really important is not her but what it says about all that is wrong with the current White House.

What was on display today was an arrogance towards the Constitution that was more than simply a conscious political manoeuvre, however bad that might be on its own. Ms Doan displayed a deeply inherent ignorance that, were she to one day wake up and be confronted with it, she would be shocked and dismayed. But she will never wake up to it. She believes that mouthing words by rote of allegiance to the Constitution is the same as truly in your heart understanding what service to your fellow citizens means.

She will never comprehend the awful, blatant disrespect that she showed today to the people of the United States in the form of their elected representatives. It is the same disrespect that permeates this White House and which is shown in every action of George W Bush, that will never be comprehended by him. The chasm that exists between our understanding and theirs is huge and will never, ever be bridged.

Some time ago, there was a young, arrogant, successful, thrusting executive in a public sector utility who, I think and hope, somehow unconsciously understood what public service meant and who knew to whom he was the servant. In those days, he was far less conscious of these matters than he is now, but I think he steered his way through it O.K. He was, and still is, proud of having really been a private sector corporate executive, someone who earned his living in big business and who gets angry with some of the blind resentment shown towards individuals in business.

Ms. Doan, with whom he has so much in common, today shamed him and shamed those who spend time away from the private sector and work in public service. This is why I am so angry at what I watched and heard today in that committee room.

About the Author: Keith Barratt (Welshman) is frequent contributor to ePluribus Media and the founder of the New International Times

Other ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers: rba, cho, roxy

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