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Remarks at Partnership for Public Service

Thurrsday, June 2, 2011

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke
Remarks at Partnership for Public Service

Good morning, everyone. Thank you for those kind words, Jeff.  It’s a pleasure to join you today.

I’m excited to be here at the Partnership for Public Service. I know the Partnership is hard at work inspiring new generations of Americans to serve their country and their communities, and I want to thank you for that.

What you do is especially important in the face of a pernicious and deeply misguided strain of politics today that depicts government work as inconsequential…or worse. 

But you know differently. How government employees perform determines how well America:

  • protects its security and its environment;
  • creates economic and educational opportunities; and
  • uses its taxpayers’ precious resources.

The seriousness of the stakes demands an equally serious commitment from government leaders to set clear goals and to preach – but most importantly, practice – effective management.

Today, I'm looking forward to discussing the reforms we've implemented at the Commerce Department to get us there.

Before I get into the specifics, though, I want to say a quick word about leadership philosophy.

No matter where I’ve been, it’s been my conviction that leaders have to set high-stretch goals that force people to re-imagine how they do their jobs – not just tinker with a process here or a protocol there.  They also need to provide incentives to encourage innovation and recognition for work well done.

In my previous tenure as the governor of Washington State, and now as Commerce Secretary, I have never faulted an employee for falling short of a goal that was difficult to reach. What is important is working diligently. What is critical is constantly challenging ourselves to perform even better.

I learned over time that organizations that fixate on failure never take the risks necessary to achieve the extraordinary.

And make no mistake, the challenges this economy have put in front of us are extraordinary.

I had a little bit of experience with that in Washington State, albeit on a smaller scale.

In the aftermath of the dot-com bubble, Washington State’s general fund was, at one point, $2.1 billion in the red – and this forced me and my leadership team to answer two fundamental questions:

What should state government do, and what should it stop doing? 

In short, we had to prioritize – to focus on delivering the services that were absolutely essential to the people of our state. 

That’s easier said than done when you’re talking about a big bureaucracy.

But in Olympia, we aggressively prioritized our goals and put in place management strategies to make sure state employees understood their role in helping us meet them.     

Ultimately, we balanced our budget without tax increases, while making state services more effective and efficient.

At Commerce, we are taking a similar approach. In a difficult budget environment, the temptation is to always ask “what can we cut?”

That's the wrong question. You need to be asking:

“What outcomes are most important and what actions can you take to produce those outcomes?”

When I first arrived at Commerce, we began intently focusing on key priorities that would help American businesses become more innovative at home and more competitive abroad.

With priorities in place, we turned the focus to program management to ensure that we drive accountability, oversight and transparency into how we achieve our goals.

The linchpin of our program management is something called the “Balance Scorecard approach.” When I first adopted the Scorecard in Washington State, it was a tool strictly used by the private sector.

But even though there was no profit motive in government, it still made sense. It creates a formal, data-driven mechanism in which you can set priorities, the goals to achieve those priorities and then a formal process for monitoring progress on a quarterly basis so that you can make a course correction if things are going off track.

The framework the Balanced Scorecard provides has served the department well, including:

  • data-based decision making
  • training on how to improve processes; and
  • recognition of model employee teams.

Instituting the Scorecard is part of a larger effort we established last summer called the Commerce Performance Excellence Program, which also includes regular performance reviews and process improvements teams within bureaus.

Most important, this is a vital step toward becoming an organization that continuously improves and shares lessons learned – despite our size.

At Commerce, the Balanced Scorecard is structured around three programmatic themes and three management themes:

  • Customer service,
  • Organizational excellence, and
  • Workforce excellence.

And the three management themes maximize our resources to make good on our programmatic goals.

In addition to results-driven performance management – embodied in the Balanced Scorecard – there are three other initiatives designed to support our management themes:

  • Priority-Based Budgeting;
  • Acquisition Reform; and
  • Improved Customer Service.

First, I’d like to discuss priority-based budgeting.

For the 2012 budget, the department prioritized key investments to achieve goals.

That may sound basic, but we believe it’s the first time the Department has ever used that strategy.

It forced us to make tough choices about which programs to invest in and which programs to reduce.

Commerce’s 2012 budget proposes ending, reducing or restructuring at least 16 lower-priority programs. By doing so, we project savings of more than a quarter of a billion dollars.

What’s more, the administration is pursuing an aggressive government-wide effort to curb non-essential administrative spending called the Administrative Efficiency Initiative. After reviewing our administration costs, the Commerce Department identified over $142 million in savings, including $57 million in acquisition savings, plus personnel, travel and other costs.

And of those savings, $39 million will be reinvested by bureaus to strengthen critical programs.

This cycle of cost savings will continue to help our budgeting for years to come.

Next, I’d like to briefly discuss our acquisition reform efforts.

We have a multi-pronged approach to improve how we make acquisitions in order to deliver greater savings, greater results and greater efficiencies.

Those strategies include:

  • Stronger metrics to measure performance;
  • A new approach to defining requirements;
  • Pursuing bulk buying and other purchasing strategies;
  • Better identifying and managing high-risk purchases; and
  • Creating a new Center of Excellence to provide outstanding customer service to the small bureaus.

These efforts will ensure the department is making lasting, important improvements in acquisition to shrink costs and boost value and efficiency.

The final initiative is our goal to improve customer service.

To that end, the department has rolled out CommerceConnect, a “one-stop shop” for businesses that streamlines access to Commerce services and solutions.

The initiative began with a simple observation: It was just too difficult for small and medium-sized businesses to navigate our department.

So CommerceConnect launched as a pilot program in Michigan in 2009. We put cross-trained Commerce experts in one office to connect businesses with any service we offer. But we didn’t stop there. We also partnered with state and local agencies so that our experts could learn about and ultimately direct business owners to those services too.

Since its launch, we’ve routed a national call center through the Michigan office and have expanded into department field offices in 16 regions across the country.

Before I wrap up here today, I want to note that while these management reforms are still works in progress, I can say without question that they’ve already had an impact in improving the Department’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Take for example the work being done by our Economic Development Administration to help local communities identify their own unique strengths to respond to changing regional conditions. EDA supports private-public partnerships with this goal in mind, and in the last year it slashed the response time for its grant applications – from 128 to just 20 business days.

Another successful reform can be found in the Patent and Trademark Office. We overhauled management processes at PTO and were able to cut the application backlog by 10 percent, even as the volume of applications increased by 5 percent.

That will have a concrete impact on America’s ability to out-innovate its economic competitors and will help determine whether we’re home to the jobs of the future.

A few more concrete examples:

  • A well-run 2010 Census, which many experts identified as “likely to fail.” They were proved wrong as the census concluded … not just with an accurate count … but on schedule and 25 percent under budget, saving taxpayers $1.8 billion.
  • In 2009, we helped 35 million Americans access coupons for the transition from analog to digital cable, revamping a program that had gone over budget and had under-performed during the previous administration, and;
  • Through the Recovery Act, we created from scratch a $5 billion grant-making program to expand high-speed Internet access in underserved areas across America.

These results did not come about by chance.  We set ambitious goals and rigorous metrics and management frameworks to meet them.

These are some of the tangible successes we can hang our hat on, but our work is far from done, and we are going to keep pressing every day to improve everything we do.

America is still in the process of economic recovery, and it is as important as ever to keep focused on smart management. The president has called on the United States to out-educate, out-innovate, and out-build our economic competitors. And I know that by focusing on organizational effectiveness in order to drive innovation and international competitiveness we will truly win the future.

As you know, I’ve been nominated by President Obama to serve as the nation’s ambassador to China. This is a very humbling challenge and one I look forward to. 

But being Commerce Secretary has been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

I say that knowing the economic upheaval of the last two years has been wrenching for the American people.

I’ve seen it first hand – whether it was listening to Ohio small business owners desperate for access to capital or a Michigan woman pleading for work for her and her husband.

Their stories created a sense of urgency that has driven my days as Secretary.

As I prepare to leave Commerce, the importance of being proper stewards of taxpayer resources remains paramount. In the face of both a fragile recovery and significant long-term deficits, we simply cannot argue effectively for the new investments that will help make America more competitive if we aren’t making the best use of what we already have.

That’s the challenge, and the opportunity, before us: rethinking how government works so that we inspire in the American people the confidence that we will treat their money as effectively and conscientiously as we treat our own.

Thank you.