10/24/98: Remarks by Bob Stone at the American Heritage River Symposium


National Partnership for Reinventing Government
The Gift Outright
Remarks by Bob Stone

American Heritage River Symposium
Atlanta, GA
October 24,1998

The land was ours before we were the land's She was our land more than a hundred years Before we were her people. She was ours In Massachusetts, in Virginia, But we were England's, still colonials, Possessing what we were still unpossessed by . . .

Robert Frost read his poem called "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Frost's poem tells how we grew to know and appreciate "The Gift" of this nation's natural beauty and abundance. Not to edit Frost, but his poem could just as well have begun "The rivers were ours before we were the rivers'." And in fact, that line would be even truer.

The rivers were how and where America was colonized. Captain John Smith sailed up the James to Jamestown in 1607, William Penn sailed up the Delaware to Chester, Henry Hudson to New Amsterdam, Loyola sailed down the Ohio-and by 1875 a half million people lived in St Louis on the Mississippi and 40,000 lived in Wilmington, where the Christiana flows into the Delaware.

The rivers were our highways, our telephone lines, our mail service, our grocery stores, and a hundred other vital services all rolled into one. But in the ensuing three centuries, the rivers that were ours somehow became diminished. Many disappeared from view as factories grew up on their banks and the railroads and highways and phone lines took over their functions.

As a boy growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, I knew this firsthand. My father often talked of his youth in Wilmington, growing up on the Christiana River, picnicking on the shores, fishing, and using the river as a highway to get to Philadelphia. I grew up not even sure where the Christiana was, it wasn't even a part of my mental landscape of Wilmington. Today Wilmington has opened up the riverbanks, built a jewel of a ball park, and an exhibition hall in an effort to recapture the glory of a lively river front.

A lesser poet, known as Al Gore, --don't anyone tell him I called him that--had this to say about rivers:

Our waterways connect our cities together . . . Rivers are not only the arteries of commerce, They carry the lifeblood of the American story.

You know, I couldn't have said that better myself.

Now, we're not here to "reinvent" these rivers. They don't need it. We are here to reinvent our government, our communities, and, ultimately, ourselves. These neglected rivers can bring us back to our best natures as a nation. They provide us with an opportunity to "taste democracy again -- for the first time."

What does "reinventing government" mean? It's a shorthand for the effort led by Vice President Al Gore to create a government that works better and costs less-a government as customer friendly as Nordstrom's and Gateway, a government as accessible as American Express and Disney, a government as economical as Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart, as innovative as 3M and Microsoft, as well managed as GE and the New York Yankees.

It means a government that will restore the uplifting meaning to the old phrase, "Good enough for government work."

The reinvention effort, unlike earlier government reform efforts, isn't the creation of an ivory-tower panel of management experts and public policy experts. The Vice President proceeded from his fierce conviction that the people who knew best how to fix government were the government's frontline workers and the people who deal with government as its customers.

Vice President Gore and his team collected the best ideas from workers and customers all over the country, and put these ideas to work.

We celebrated reinvention's fifth anniversary last March. What has been accomplished in that time? To date reinventing government has resulted in $137 billion in savings as verified by the Government Accounting Office. The federal workforce is smaller by 351,000 people, as small as it was in the administration of John F. Kennedy, when Frost read his poem on the porch of the Capitol.

And for the first time in 30 years, we are in a budget surplus. And public trust in government to do the right thing has improved after a continuous 30-year decline. That is achieving Vice President Gore's ultimate goal for reinvention - to restore the trust of the American people in their government.

As impressive as the changes brought about by reinventing government have been, we know we have a long way to go. Those changes we have made are just "beachheads" in our crusade. What we need now is to expand on those beachheads and create breakouts, so that we forever change how government works.

If you want to know how to reinvent government, we have produced a guidebook that may help you navigate the tricky waters ahead. It is a pilot's manual called "The Blair House Papers." I have a few of these nifty little red books with me, and if I run out you can download them from our web site, www.npr.gov. The VP calls it the Clinton-Gore management playbook

It's pretty simple--there are just three major topics--

  1. Deliver great service
  2. Reinvent to get the job done with less, and
  3. Foster partnership and community solutions
That's where you come in. The underlying premise of American Heritage Rivers is partnerships and community solutions that transcend political boundaries and respect only watershed boundaries.

Partnerships that were unheard of until now. Unlikely partners. Fifty-eight mayors in five states. A dozen federal agencies. Partnerships, like the one in Seattle of USEPA, the Port of Seattle, American President Lines, the Department of Justice, and the owners of a 100-year old poison-leaking wood treating plant. That partnership stopped pollution, saved jobs, and increased profits.

Reinvention partnerships are already getting big results fast all across America:

  • Safe effective medicines to market.
  • Reductions in drug smuggling
  • Reductions in worker injuries
  • Reductions in crime
You may have noticed I didn't mention budget increases in these principles. That's because a reinvented government doesn't mean more money. Now your River Navigator and the assembled agencies may help your projects tap into funds and grants that you may not have otherwise found. But ultimately, reinventing government means faster, better, cheaper.

That depends on creating "leverage" with every dollar you get your hands on. It depends on getting the private sector, the academic sector, and the voluntary sector on board the project, along with every level of government working to a common purpose, not at cross purposes.

We see you as laboratories of reinvention, discovering and identifying how the federal government-and all your partners-can change to help you get results Americans care about. We see you as a partnership-development laboratory, discovering and identifying ways of working together that we haven't yet dreamed of.

I know that at least two of the rivers--the Connecticut and the Susquehanna--are out ahead with your ideas on how to reinvent government. Push these reinvention ideas-we can't solve our problems without succeeding at reinvention.

What the American Heritage Rivers are doing, what Reinventing Government is aimed at, and what Vice President Gore is focused on is one objective-restoring the trust of the American people in our government. When you do great things you'll show the American people that their government and their institutions can be trusted. On behalf of Vice President Gore, thank you for your courage and vision.

What I particularly like about this conference is that the federal government isn't here to tell you what to do, we are here to ask you what you want to do in you Heritage River projects - and then see how we can help.

The Blair House Papers are our reinvention playbook, but I want to add one piece of advice for you laboratories of reinvention.

I learned it at the Pentagon from Air Force General Jud Ellis, and my good friend Congressman Paul Kanjorsky challenged me to live by it. It's just this: Don't do dumb things on purpose. We do enough dumb things by accident.

I want to close with more from Frost's poem, "The Gift Outright." He states the purpose of the Heritage Rivers project and reinventing government more clearly than I ever could:

Something we were withholding made us weak Until we found it was ourselves. We were withholding from our land of living, And forthwith found salvation in surrender. . . Such as we were, we gave ourselves outright.

Thank you for your gift outright.

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