Service awards give partnerships their due

Buylines | Policies, strategies and trends to watch

The annual Service to America
Medals, or Sammies, were awarded
Sept. 16, and once again, the
awards' sponsor ? the Partnership for
Public Service ? succeeded in proving
that the civil service continues to produce
exceptional leaders doing exceptional
work, despite the rhetoric to the
contrary and the many obstacles in their
way.

The awards are given to civil servants
in a wide range of fields ? including
health, law, technology, security and the
environment. They come at a particularly
important time. Even as the presidential
candidates talk passionately about
the need to enhance the national commitment
to volunteer and career service,
the federal workforce faces enormous
challenges. Demographic trends remain
deeply troubling, and few efforts of real,
sustainable value are being undertaken
to empower or enable employees to pursue
innovation or move aggressively to
address the problems the government
faces.

That challenge is borne out in the
Professional Services Council's biennial
survey of federal acquisition leaders,
which will be released in late October.

Many of the same issues highlighted in
the 2006 survey have emerged again:
workforce capacity, lack of employee
development and strong concerns that
risk and innovation are being inhibited
rather than fostered in government. The
Sammy winners' ability to accomplish
all that they have in this difficult, often
harsh environment offers an even
greater testament to their achievements.

The Sammies also offer a valuable lesson
about government. One of last year's
winners, Frazer Lockhart, the Energy
Department program manager who led
the cleanup effort at the Rocky Flats
nuclear weapons plant in Colorado,
referred to his team's achievement as
"an example of what happens when you
put the best of government together
with the best of industry." Again this
year, a number of the winners led critical
initiatives that delivered important
and valuable results
in partnership with
the private sector ?
from tackling global
warming to preventing
infection,
from improving
medical care for
returning veterans
to enhancing opportunities
for women
in Afghanistan.

The winner of the
2008 Federal
Employee of the
Year Medal was
Richard Greene, the
U.S. Agency for International
Development official responsible for
leading the Bush administration's
anti-malaria initiative, which is being
implemented by a diverse array of
government, industry and nongovernmental
entities. The initiative offers yet
another validation of Lockhart's observation
about the power of public/private
partnerships.

We should continue to pay close heed
to that lesson. Most discussions about
the current or future state of the government
are binary: We have too many
contractors or we don't have enough.

The Sammies remind us that the real
question is far more nuanced: How do
we build the most effective organization
that has the right mix of contractor and
federal resources and the right management
and leadership to achieve the government's
many missions? Answering
that question requires realistic assessments
of a program's
needs and challenges
and an equally realistic
assessment of the
availability of and
competition for scarce
workforce skills. In
other words, the role
of the private sector
is not an either/or
question. It is one
of balance.

It's time to go
beyond the debates of
yesterday and focus on
the realities of today.
The face of government
has changed and will continue to
evolve. The Sammy winners deserve the
country's thanks for what they have
done and continue to do. Their accomplishments
are truly exceptional. And in
many ways, they underscore the need
for more, not less, partnership.

Stan Soloway (soloway@pscouncil.org) is president
and chief executive officer of the
Professional Services Council.

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