Remarks by Ambassador Jean Manes at ECADE Graduation
* This is a courtesy translation. Only the original Spanish version should be considered authoritative.
April 3, 2019
It is an absolute honor to be here today with the graduating class of ECADE because I myself graduated from my Masters in Public Administration almost 26 years ago. First, congratulations to you for your dedication and passion to take on in my view the most noblest of causes – to serve the people of your countries. Congratulations also to your family and friends. The path you have chosen isn’t easy, it definitely isn’t glamorous, but it matters.
Many of you know I grew up in a family business. My dad worked for the JCPenney company for a number of years and then started his own company called “Teri’s Bath” where we sold towels, shower curtains, bath rugs. It started with one store and grew to fourteen. I grew up working the cash register and selling. It was in my blood. Which is why my father could never understand why I wanted to study international relations and become a public servant.
In fact, I don’t think it was until I became an Ambassador that he finally came to terms with the decision. Why would you enter a vocation that in general had such a low public opinion (I’ve heard every negative comment about public servants), your salary is low (we have one car and it’s from 2005) and you may be the only one who recognizes your hard work and dedication.
To be honest – I’m not sure. But, I think like each one of you – I feel that being a public servant is a calling. It is this inner belief that you can make a difference. It all starts from there. The ability to make a difference for your fellow citizens.
Every seminar, class discussion, lecture has all been geared to enhancing your professionalism; to increase your ability to serve the public.
What you do matters. Frankly, I believe now more than ever. Our fellow citizens, our communities and our countries need us. They need faith restored in government.
When citizens lose confidence in public services, they lose confidence in their country.
That’s a heavy burden to bear, but it is a challenge worth accepting and each of you today has done just that. It is definitely a road less traveled.
I’m a big believer in leading change from where you are. There is no perfect moment to suddenly become a leader. You become a leader every day, demonstrating your competence and passion. One of the most important components of a program like ECADE is developing a network of committed professionals.
We are the guardians. The guardians of democracy.
As public servants, we are not political leaders or elected leaders. Rarely do we set the top level direction for a given policy. We are charged with providing advice on a given direction and charged with the implementation and carrying out a vision.
But, we do have tremendous influence and impact on both the efficiency and effectiveness of any given policy and also should be active participants in any policy discussion. We are the institutional knowledge of our governments. At some point when you have been around long enough – we’ve seen not only every new idea once, but likely twice or even three times. But, it is our job to educate incoming political leadership, but also to remain open to new direction.
In our system of government, only 1% of government positions are political; 99% are career public servants. That is why a strong civil service law is so important for the continuity of government and for the professionalization. 1% are appointed by the president and these are labeled positions of confidence so the incoming president can have senior leaders across the government institutions to convey the policy direction. It is then our role as career public servants to help shape that vision and look for the most efficient way to carry it out.
For that, it is essential to have quality public servants, experts across every field. And, also, now this is the hard part, professionals willing to leave their personal political party at the door.
But public servants are not just caretakers, we absolutely have to be innovators and courageous. We are professionals that must continue to update our skills and build strong teams to deliver quality services to the public.
And, we need to always be willing to challenge the status quo. To come with fresh eyes and encourage those around us to go back to the basics.
I’ll give a quick example. When I was leading a bureau in the State Department that was charged with public engagement overseas we needed to look at how to engage audiences from the new generation. Our bureau had a long history of hosting film festivals and libraries. When I came into the position, my boss, who was a political appointee and much younger than me, wanted to move into the digital age. Well, our bureau of 400 was wary to say the least. They had seen it all before. How many political appointees had come in, trying to make their mark, changing everything. I was the career person assigned to convince everyone not only to take a chance, but be part of leading change.
We are talking about people who had an average of 30 years in the job, some even 40 years. it was a tough crowd. I remember walking into a meeting and a number of folks were seated at the table, arms crossed, and definitely ready to shut down any possible change.
During the conversation, one of them made a passionate plea about a key foreign leader who told him that he grew up attending our film festivals in India, that is where he first connected with the United States, from there he used the library and the books opened his mind to different systems of government. He went on to become the prime minister and was now a key ally of the United States. Then the person said to me: ”so now you want to destroy all of that; you want to ruin that interaction, that engagement that builds lasting friendships with the United States.”
My response was: “Actually, I want to do exactly what you just described, build long-lasting relationships, but for the current generation and the generations to come. I want exactly that magic of building relationships between the United States and up and coming leaders, but that’s not the way this generation interacts. If you want to build relationships with this generation we have to engage them where they are in the way they prefer.
Sometimes we get hung up on the tactic instead of focusing on the end goal.
As public servants it’s really easy to get wedded to a process, a procedure, but sometimes we have to step back and have that important conversation of what we are trying to do.
If our goal is to deliver quality services to the public. Don’t be afraid to step back and restart the process. Some of that is happening here in El Salvador with the commitment to reduce tramitología. Education, health care, process for getting a driver’s license. Never lose sight of the primary goal and then have the courage to lead change, challenge assumptions, and pursue excellence on behalf of the citizens that we have the privilege to serve.
Public service is a calling. It’s also a challenge. Do whatever you need to do to keep your passion. For me, I need to be close to the people. In this job, the most rewarding and reinvigorating is traveling to small towns across the country and listening to their hopes and dreams. It gives me energy to come back and engage with local politicians, and I need all the energy I can get for that. For example, with the customs system. Most people think of big companies exporting products. But I think of the almost 70% of the companies in El Salvador are small and medium. I think of small companies, just like the one I grew up in, who are just trying to make it. Companies that can’t afford to hire a dedicated person to handle all the complicated paperwork to export. I talk with them and someone who is trying to remain innovative, competitive in designing products that are world class yet can’t export because there are so many roadblocks that suddenly the added costs make that product not competitive. Or, from one entrepreneur who said she spent three days trying to figure out how to ship her product overseas and still could not guarantee her client a delivery date.
I look at that and that responsibility falls squarely on us, public servants. It is our job to facilitate services to the public, not to complicate their lives. This isn’t a resilience test to see if you can survive all the frustration and hassle then someone you’ve proven yourself. Our job is to facilitate, to deliver quality public services in the most efficient manner.
Over the course of your program, you have enhanced your skills, reviewed case studies and shared lessons learned. Your citizens need you. You also can set the stage for expectations. Set them high and I guarantee you people will reach them. Don’t settle for the old phrase, “it’s good enough for government service”. We should be the best.
You will face enormous challenges. Corruption plagues many public systems. It’s easy to look the other way. Don’t. There is one thing that is yours it is your personal integrity. Set high standards and hold yourself and your colleagues accountable. We have enormous responsibility that comes with public trust. Recently in El Salvador there have been a series of high profile public corruption cases that have eroded confidence.
Let me share a personal example. All of us start out talking about core values and I believe those values serve as a beacon for our day to day decisions. Many will mention values such as integrity, honesty, ethics, treatment of others with respect, dignity, etc. I share these values, which I learned at home, modeled by my parents and others. I began my career with those in place. I never thought I would face moments where my values would come in direct conflict with doing my job.
Early in my career I had the privilege to work with outstanding examples of public service, role models. Then came a test. One day a new boss arrived. Very senior, very powerful. He came to me to sign a set of documents to allocate public funds. And, let me take a moment to emphasize I believe it serves us well to always emphasize that these “funds” are taxpayer funds. They are funds that as public servants we are entrusted to manage. There is no such thing as “government” funds. That doesn’t exist.
Back to the story. He came in and asked me to sign certain documents allocating taxpayer funds to an inappropriate activity for personal gain. Being early in my career, still a bit naïve, and frankly, believing we had a shared value to “do the right thing” I began to walk him through the regulations and explain that this was not an appropriate use of taxpayer funds. Over a period of days, it became very clear that he wasn’t interested in the regulations, regarding the documents he wanted me to sign.
He began to threaten me and insist I sign or he would ruin my career. Others in my building were being asked to do similar things. Some advised to just sign. They said, people will understand you were under direct pressure and had no choice.
I went home and spent many hours and days thinking about that. I remember looking in the mirror and asking myself out loud if I could live with that. If this was the reason I joined this career – to be a public servant, to make a positive difference. I had all the normal thoughts, my career was really taking off, if I had a senior person write a negative evaluation I would never be able to move into more senior positions to make even more impact.
In that moment, I made the decision that I was going to hold true to my core values: integrity, honesty, service. For me, it was in fact a David and Goliath moment. It was the moment that determined whether those values that I had espoused all those years really mattered or were just convenient and made me feel like a good person. Was I willing to give up my career to do the right thing?
See, I think corruption of public officials doesn’t begin with millions of dollars. I think corruption begins like most crimes, a daily eroding of values and compromises until suddenly one morning you wake up and look in the mirror and don’t recognize who you have become.
That is why it is your day to day decisions that matter. The example that you set as a leader; the clear direction, the core values and hold yourself and all those around you accountable.
So, how did the story end? I didn’t sign and he spent the next two years trying to ruin my career. He did write that terrible evaluation stating I was the worst officer and should never be in another position. He did make my life a living hell for months. He used me as an example to ensure that no one else would do what I did. Many of my colleagues stopped talking to me, protecting themselves, not wanting to be in the line of fire or the next victim. I lost 30 pounds in three months, in retrospect, was definitely the most effective diet I have ever been on.
But, I held strong and fought. I fought for my core values. While my career was temporarily stalled for a number of years, in the end it was the career professionals that oversee our evaluation system that recognized what happened and 15 years later I am here with you as the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador.
It is our decisions over time that make us the leaders that we become. As my Salvadoran colleagues know, I have absolutely no tolerance for public corruption and the abuse of power. I believe as public servants we are given the sacred trust of the citizens of our countries. The trust and confidence is hard to win. It’s every day giving people confidence that we are doing the very best we can to deliver the services that they pay for and deserve as citizens. That confidence and trust is hard to gain, but so easy to lose. In one big corruption case and we are all lumped into the category of “corrupt public officials” but I think we also have to recognize that in a big corruption cases there are dozens that facilitated the corruption; and even more who knew and did nothing. I still think that there are more of us who are good.
In many ways, we are the defenders of our democracies. I have one simple phrase on the white board in my office. It says, “Do the Right Thing.” You can interpret that one phrase in many ways. Do the right thing could mean: choose the right priorities; choose the right direction, make the decision that is in line with your core values. It is remarkable how many decisions become crystal clear if you go back to that one phrase, “Do the Right Thing.”
Each one of you can be part of restoring public confidence in government. It is a privilege and a noble profession to be a public servant. Our countries need us. Be bold, be courageous, lead by example and do the right thing.
Watch the video (Spanish) here: