To reclaim a reputation for competency, government will need a culture that values capable managers, and public servants with the courage to tell the unpleasant truths to their political masters.
It was Good Friday 1964, and Dwight Ink was sitting on his couch at home watching televised images of a massive earthquake that had hit Alaska. “It looked like utter chaos,” recalls Ink. “I remember feeling sorry for whoever was going to have to put things back together.”
A few days later, President Lyndon Johnson informed Ink that he was going to be that guy.
History tends to adore the person at the helm, the president who calls the shots from the Oval Office. Overlooked are the bureaucrats who actually carry out the commands. Out of the limelight, Ink served seven consecutive presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. Now retired, this unassuming bureaucrat was often the one doing the heavy lifting.
Ink went to Alaska. Every engineer he met agreed that rebuilding could not be completed during the state’s short construction season. Without water and sewer systems, Anchorage and other harbor communities couldn’t function. Alaskans would have to abandon the state if Ink couldn’t rebuild before a deep freeze halted progress.
“It was a dismal first night,” Ink recalls. “I got no sleep at all.”
During that sleepless night he had an epiphany. Ink had to think in reverse of the typical approach to managing public construction projects, beginning with the results needed to enable families to stay in Alaska: “We had to figure out, no matter how impossible it might seem, what had to be done by the time the construction season ended, then work backwards,” he says.
In a story that reads like the antithesis of Hurricane Katrina, Ink led a swift and efficient reconstruction effort. The 1964 Alaskan Earthquake is largely forgotten today because of Ink’s leadership.
After returning from Alaska, he helped Johnson launch the War on Poverty and create the Housing and Urban Development Department. He was in charge of the New Federalism for President Richard Nixon, and led President Jimmy Carter’s civil service reform. Ink’s knack for delivering results garnered him the nickname “Mr. Implementation.”
He also worked at the Atomic Energy Commission under Eisenhower. With Cold War tensions at their height, reaching a nuclear treaty with the Soviets was critical. Ink came to believe that the United States’ best strategy was to pursue a limited ban on nuclear testing, forbidding atmospheric experiments but allowing for underground testing.
After John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, Ink had to make his case anew. Noted Harvard historian and key Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger strongly disagreed with Ink’s approach, and in a meeting the two locked horns. As a rule, a bureaucrat tends to tread lightly with political appointees, particularly famous ones close to the president. Nonetheless, Ink passionately made the case for the limited ban, refusing to back down.
During one heated exchange, Ink saw something that made his career flash before his eyes. One of the president’s closest advisers, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was sitting nearby. “I was aghast to suddenly realize that sitting in a chair along the wall behind Arthur was Bobby Kennedy,” Ink says. “Apparently, Arthur had reported my unseemly behavior, and Bobby had come to see for himself.” Ink thought he would be fired.
That didn’t happen. Robert Kennedy evidently appreciated Ink’s candor. “To my complete surprise, [they] kept me in that role, and at the next meeting Schlesinger was absent and never attended another one,” says Ink. Some months later, President Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, a key step in reducing nuclear tensions during the Cold War.
Ink’s entire career was marked by such courage. One of his last assignments was to reduce drug traffic from South America for President Reagan in the 1980s. Rather than stay behind his desk in Washington, Ink ventured to the source of the drugs, only to find himself captured by Colombian drug lords. After a nerve-racking day he was released.
Ink, who had retired in 1976, returned to government twice before his final farewell in 1989.
In today’s hyper-cynical Washington, the notion of a good bureaucrat is almost unheard of. Too often, politicians rely on their loyal campaign staffers to manage the bureaucracy—with disastrous results.
Ink believes the political-bureaucratic divide has grown worse in recent years. “The career service is the only vehicle through which a president can govern. Yet we continue to see instance after instance of White House staff and agency leaders not only failing to reach out to the men and women on whom their political success will largely rest, but also quickly alienating them,” he says.
A person doesn’t have to be president to be a leader. A good bureaucrat can be a great leader.
To reclaim a reputation for competency, government will need more Dwight Inks. It requires a political culture that values and honors capable managers, as well as public servants with the courage to tell the unpleasant truths to their political masters. These days, the word “bureaucrat” is used as an insult. But government relies on those career officials who actually can implement the policy initiatives legislated by politicians from both sides of the aisle.
Republished with permission from Government Executive, January 13, 2010. Read the original article on www.govexec.com.