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March 6, 2013
As prepared for delivery
I want to congratulate you on your 100th anniversary. A century of leadership and management in the Federal government – that's something to be proud of.
The perspective you get, when you look back across a century, shows you just how much has changed. Back in 1913, suffragettes marched through Washington, DC, and the unruly crowd that faced them had to be subdued from horseback. This year, more Senators are women than ever before – twenty in all. Technology marches at a pace that would make our grandparents' and great-grandparents' heads spin.
The perspective of a century also shows just how much does not change, when it comes to good leadership. A leader must both inspire and manage their team, and all the more so in hard times.
I received an email the other day from a Federal employee who has served nineteen years in civil service and more than twenty years in the armed services. He asked me, Why are these cuts hitting federal employees?
His email struck upon what is my greatest fear: That the indiscriminate nature of these cuts will hurt individuals like you so greatly that public service will no longer appeal. Cuts to wallets are bad, yes – but they heal far faster than cuts to hearts. We must not let that happen.
We must not drive away talent in cybersecurity and acquisition just when we need them the most. The GAO identified each of these areas as skills gaps – places where we need to recruit and train our talent better. Hackers worldwide won't take a break because there's a tight budget here. And a skilled acquisitions office makes the difference between a slim surplus and a busted budget. My fear is that the top talent just won't apply to public service jobs, or if they're here, they'll leave.
Many of you, when you look at the red lines slashed across your budgets, will see not only the numbers, but the missions left unfulfilled. You see people – colleagues who will strive hard to achieve the same results with fewer people and fewer hours – even while they are hard hit by a smaller paycheck.
We cannot, as managers, stop the cuts the law requires. We cannot assure that their impact will not touch families across the nation. But we can and we must do what we can to remind the public – and our employees – of the important work done in public service .
Societies have become civilizations by revering as true that it is a good and noble thing to serve your neighbor. As the Scripture puts it, "No greater love has anyone than to lay down their life for another." What smallness of mind or heart now dares make a mockery of this?
All across our nation, thousands of men and women rise each morning to serve their neighbors. They check our medicines, they protect our foods, and they keep the playing field level and open for banks and businesses of every size.
They do this work because we the people have asked that it be done. We like our communities, roads and skies safe. We like our senior citizens to get the care they need. We like our children to get good educations. We like our parks and monuments held open for the enjoyment of all.
These are among the many goals we've set for our civil service – state, local and Federal – and together they make the bricks and mortar of our nation.
Many of the men and women in public service also wake up knowing that today, duty may call on them to run into a wildfire, or walk toward a hostage-taker, or sacrifice themselves for the security of our borders, ports and skies.
Our troops, when they enlist, swear to uphold and defend our Constitution – a task for which they are rightly honored. Yet the civilians who swear the same oath all too often find themselves punted as political footballs. It must end.
Make no mistake, where waste exists, it should be rooted out; where employees fail, they should be fired. But what smallness of spirit causes a callous few to denigrate service, courage, and good purpose?
Our Federal civil service today is far more efficient than many remember from their youth. We have the same number of employees as when LBJ was President, though in that same span of time, our nation has grown from 200 million to above 330 million. And in today's civil service, a full one-third are Veterans. Their uniform may be gone – but the heart and soul and solemn oath remain.
Our civil service workers defend and uphold the Constitution, some with their very lives, like Eric Williams, who died last week in the line of his duties as a guard at a Federal high-security prison. We serve our nation proudly, and I for one thank God that most of our citizens still respect and value that service.
I hope that you as managers will take this message to heart, and convey it to your peers and your employees. On behalf of myself and on behalf of all Americans, thank you. Your missions are important to our safety and our communities. Your service to our nation - both in and out of uniform - is a precious and essential thing.
Myself, I was drawn to public service by my father who bravely fought at Guadalcanal and who named me for his younger brother, another marine, who died in combat in the Pacific. For his entire life, he revered service and all of those who stepped forward to do so. He knew that Neil Armstrong was a GS-16. My father died in the house that the Veterans Administration helped him build. He loved our country and taught his children to do the same. He was proud of my civilian service and told me that he was sure my uncle was looking down with pride as well.
Ulysses S. Grant, after leading the Union to victory, and after serving his term as President, spoke movingly about the wellspring of our nation's strength:
"If I had never held command; if I had fallen; if all our generals had fallen, there were ten thousand behind us who would have… followed the contest to the end and never surrendered the Union."
You are that ten thousand. Never lose the heart which brought you here.
Grant knew our country wasn't strong and good because it has a Constitution. It is our world's best hope because we have always had men and women willing to step forward and take a solemn oath to protect and defend it. Men and women like you.
God bless you for all you have done. God bless you for all you will do. And God bless the United States of America.
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