Reflecting on Public Service: Perceptions and Realities

The Huffington Post
By Arun M. Kumar
11-Jan-2017

As I depart from my role as Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Director General of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service at the close of the Obama Administration, what can I share about what I learned? I had never served in any government role before. Washington was new to me, a very different place from Silicon Valley where I had spent the last thirty-four years of my professional life.

It has been an intense and fascinating tenure of three years, leading an organization of over 1600 people located in 78 countries and 108 U.S. locations, working every day to increase U.S. exports and inward foreign direct investment and to reduce barriers for our businesses globally. It was a time when under the forceful leadership of Secretary Penny Pritzker, the Department of Commerce raised its game across the board and forged new avenues and tools of commercial diplomacy.

I quickly realized that the talent and commitment of this cohort of civil servants is a veritable secret to the American public. The people I worked with, the men and women of the Commercial Service (or the Global Markets unit of the International Trade Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, as we are officially called), are deeply committed to their mission, that of creating good U.S. jobs.

They work hard, as hard as anyone in the private sector. This is not often known or appreciated. I have seen them work long hours and over weekends and holidays to execute a trade mission or a bilateral engagement or to stand up a major conference. They take pride in their work, the work of our country.

They are accountable and focused on the metrics of their performance. Each year, the bar of performance is raised. This past year, we were proud to exceed every single metric, including stretch targets that included serving 28,692 U.S. exporters, mostly small and medium enterprises, assisting U.S. companies win over a hundred deals with foreign governments valued at $50.9 billion, with $36.2 billion in U.S. export content, that support about 178,000 American jobs.

They are innovative. Wait a minute! People in the government are innovative? Innovation can come in many ways – such as in creating new solutions that provide value to clients, in developing and executing on ways to expand customer reach and in finding new ways to communicate our value propositions. As one who built my career in Silicon Valley I know innovation when I see it – and I saw it in the work of colleagues like Heather Ranck, in Fargo, North Dakota who launched a Rural Export Innovation Team to promote exports from our rural communities. Or Josh Halpern, who stood up our eCommerce Innovation Lab based in Silicon Valley, working tirelessly to teach small and medium exporters to use digital marketplaces to export to customers globally. Or Sarah Kemp based in Beijing who created focused initiatives in sectors ranging from smart cities to healthcare to enhance U.S. exports to China. Or Ellen Lenny-Pessagno in Santiago, Chile who organized a major business forum for U.S. companies in Latin America. Or Matt Edwards in Washington, D.C., who organized a business forum with Ukraine to enhance U.S.-Ukraine commercial activity and to help foster a more attractive business environment in Ukraine for the benefit of U.S. companies.

I also learned that the way the government works is often non-intuitive. The first shock in entering the government was to realize the different pace of the bureaucracy. Budgets, for one. Budgets have to be planned 18 months in advance on the one hand and often various information or action requests come demanding responses in a few days or a few hours. Budgets are good for just one year, and sometimes they get extended under the mechanism of a continuing resolution. The bureaucracy operates with a constant fear of rescissions and demands for budget cuts. Procurement and hiring processes are similarly long and often unpredictable. All of these factors push organizations to become very tactical and defensive instead of creating and executing and staying the course with strategic approaches. I often felt that many of these controls that were meant to prevent one from doing the wrong things often prevent one from doing the right things when one needed to decide quickly and move forward.

A second surprise is the number of people involved in almost every decision and its consequences. This is partly driven by the number of levels in a government organization. It is not always clear what value each level adds, which adds to an insecurity-driven urge to want to be involved in every decision. A friend compared working in a bureaucracy to flying a plane where everyone wants to fly the plane. And since everyone wants to have an input and the processes are often bottom-up, the result is often the lowest common denominator, ideas that are compromised in order to work with the least bureaucratic conflict. This is a factor that works against the vast potential of a government organization to be impactful. In government, the opportunity is to be impactful at scale, to align behind and execute on bold ideas. Government is not naturally organized to promote such thinking and it takes special leadership to overcome the tendency of the bureaucracy to water ideas down.

I will always look back on my tenure as a rewarding experience, intellectually and spiritually. I believe in public service and the importance of giving back. I was happy to have that opportunity and felt driven every day to advance our mission of creating good jobs for our people. And I felt privileged to work for a visionary President and a dynamic Secretary and no less importantly with a wonderful team of civil servants, of whom I could not be more proud.

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