Confessions of a public servant in Washington

A Pittsburgh lawyer took a job with the government and found most of his colleagues talented, hard-working and committed

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I recently had a chance to live one of my fantasies.

I truly have enjoyed practicing law at K&L Gates for over three decades and I am delighted to have now returned to the firm. During all of my years of law practice, however, I've always been interested in government and politics and wondered if I might sometime have the chance to serve in a presidential administration.

As an early supporter of President Barack Obama, I was provided such an opportunity when the president was elected. With the backing of my friend Sen. Bob Casey and members of the White House staff, I was asked to join the administration when President Obama's first term was getting underway.

I inquired as to what type of meaningful role a real estate lawyer might undertake. The response from the White House was, "Do you know who the largest real estate developer in the country is?" I quickly answered that, "Since you're asking, it must be Uncle Sam."

I was aware of the massive real estate portfolio operated by the Public Buildings Service, the real estate side of the General Services Administration. I did my homework and was convinced that there was great potential to use the government's real estate operations to stimulate economic development, foster small and minority-owned businesses and help the federal government operate more efficiently.

The challenge was enormous and humbling. With the generous support of my family and law partners, I gulped and said yes. I served first as the mid-Atlantic regional administrator of GSA and then as associate commissioner of the Public Buildings Service.

The initial reactions of friends varied greatly. About half said the opportunity seemed wonderful and that my background would enable me to have a real impact. Many flatteringly called it a "noble pursuit." The other half instead asked, "Are you out of your mind?" Why would an established partner in a top-notch firm give up his partnership and dramatically reduce his income to become a government employee?

I obviously felt that the first school of thought was correct. I had long admired public officials of both parties with whom I had worked -- such as John Heinz, Dick Thornburgh, Arlen Specter and Bob Casey. I had marveled at their dedication and the impact of their work. I also had the chance to meet with President Obama and I was eager to join his new team.

So what did I find? My tenure preceded the recent revelations involving the IRS, The Associated Press, Benghazi and national security leaks. However, there was no shortage of congressional investigations and claims of government abuse during my time in Washington.

As in most large organizations, there were a few bad apples in the federal government's basket. A handful of people seemed to forget they had a fiduciary duty to serve the American public, and they paid the consequences. On the other hand, I was delighted by the high level of commitment, skill and creativity possessed by the vast majority of staff with whom I worked.

Although many career executives had joined the government for the job security and "balanced lifestyle" that it offered, they certainly answered all my frequent emails on evenings and weekends. When we were in crisis mode, there was no running for the door at 5 p.m.

That said, the interplay between the career civil servant and the political appointee is tricky business. Most career leaders in the federal bureaucracy have more detailed knowledge of their agency's workings than the folks appointed by the president to lead them. They also know that, while many political appointees are passionately committed to "leaving their mark" on the agency, the tenure of appointees typically is only a few years, then new "visionaries" will be appointed, perhaps with a somewhat different set of goals.

I found the key to be developing mutual respect. I acknowledged the expertise of the career leaders while they understood that I was there to provide an outside approach that reflected the goals of the administration.

I sometimes was frustrated when I was told how regulations and standard procedures might prevent my brilliant ideas from being implemented. Occasionally, I thought our career staff was being rigid, and they retorted that I didn't appreciate how the existing rules were established in response to prior abuses.

Most of the time, compromise was possible; career leaders themselves often were exasperated by the complex rules of the road and eagerly sought solutions. It was very gratifying when they showed me alternative routes to achieve a policy goal. Collaboration often made beautiful music.

The political appointees were an impressive and varied group, as well, reflective of the diversity of our country. Undoubtedly, some of our political team, in part, viewed their positions as opportunities to build resumes that they could parley into lucrative positions when they left government, but I suppose that's part of the free enterprise system.

Regardless of their motivations, almost everyone was talented, energetic and worked long hours. Many appointees were separated from their families during the week and their overhead costs went up while their incomes went down.

One really needs to be prepared to go through brick walls to obtain these positions -- the complex and political selection process, the background checks, the financial disclosure requirements and the post-employment ethical limitations are enough to deter many who initially express interest in public service.

At the same time, the satisfaction of potentially impacting the social and economic future of our country -- even in a relatively small way -- is hard to beat. It's a great feeling when a small businessman tells you that the opportunity he was given to work on a federal construction project saved his business.

Similarly, one has to smile when a mayor lets you know that a planned new federal building in her community will stimulate critical economic development and job creation. These types of projects were not charitable -- the government got its money's worth and the public benefited. A true win-win.

My experience certainly wasn't all roses. The polarization between the two political parties in Washington is extreme. I had the chance to meet individually with many senators and members of the House. Most members of both parties expressed great interest in how our projects could benefit their constituents, and we had cordial conversations that were sometimes enlightening.

However, when the "cameras were on" at committee hearings, the theatrics were as good as anything I've seen on Broadway. When I first was asked to testify before Congress, I naively thought that if I explained the benefits of a particular project perhaps I could foster bipartisan acceptance of our approaches. No such luck. The differing philosophies of the two parties controlled the debate.

I was disappointed at how certain members of Congress seemed more interested in scoring political points than exploring the issues. I'm sure they felt that we didn't appreciate their legitimate concerns, but we certainly tried to do so. Democracy can be sloppy. Thankfully, compromise enabled us to implement significant portions of our agenda and we did sometimes enjoy the sweet smell of success.

Overall, serving in Washington was its own reward. At an event at the White House for political appointees, the president thanked us for our service and said he hoped we'd remember this time as one of the most gratifying experiences of our careers. Indeed it was.

opinion_commentary

David H. Ehrenwerth is a partner at K&L Gates LLP Downtown.


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