National Partnership for Reinventing Government

Remarks by
Director, National Partnership for Reinventing Government
At the
USDA Operation Talon Task Force Team
Hammer Award Presentation Ceremony
Patio of the Jamie Whitten Building
Washington, DC
Monday, March 27, 2000

(As prepared)

Thank you all for the opportunity to be here on this wonderful occasion.

I want to congratulate Secretary Glickman for his leadership on the reinvention front.

I also want to recognize one of the NPR's most dynamic partners in reinvention -- Shirley Watkins, head of the Food and Nutrition Service. FNS is one of our "high impact" agencies - those that collectively affect the lives of 90% of the American public. She works hard each and every day to satisfy her customers - many of whom depend on the Food Stamp Program.

Shirley's commitment to customer service is paying off in a big way. In NPR's first-ever Customer Satisfaction Survey of the government last year, FNS surveyed its customers who receive food coupons under the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program. They gave the agency an overall score of 83 - the second highest in the entire government. And, I might add, 15 points higher than the overall government score of 68. A powerful example of the incredible work going on all over USDA -- Congratulations!

And that brings us to why we're here today. Because it's equally important to make sure that only those who deserve the benefit get it. Shirley understands that it's all about giving the American people the government they deserve - one that works better, costs less, and gets results they care about. That means giving a helping hand to those who need it and keeping the bad guys from stealing taxpayer dollars.

I want to congratulate and commend your team leader - Inspector General Viadero. Without his and Gregory's commitment, support, and leadership, we wouldn't be here today celebrating what is an inspirational reinvention success story.

Thanks to everyone on your team who came together to show how much work we can accomplish through partnership and teamwork.

It's a privilege to be here on behalf of Vice President Al Gore to celebrate your success and present these Hammer Awards to the Operation Talon Task Force. No, it's much more than a privilege - because this is how we celebrate reinvention at work. It's the most rewarding part of my job.

I want to make a pretty bold statement this morning. The Hammer Award is probably the cheapest award you will ever receive -- a regular $6 hammer, a little ribbon, and a note card, all in an aluminum frame.

But before we present them to you, I want to spend a few minutes telling you why - despite its cost -- it's also the most valuable award you'll ever receive.

The Hammer Award represents your vision and hard work; your determination; and your dedication to positive change for the American people. It means that you followed your vision and plowed ahead to get results that matter to your customers.

Why a hammer? Sure, it's inexpensive and the Vice President used one to smash that ashtray on the David Letterman show a few years ago. But it has much deeper meanings than that.

Let me give you a little of the history.

The first time NPR met with the Vice President seven years ago, he said he wanted to recognize positive changes in how government works. But he didn't want to focus on the bad examples out there that people like to point at and make fun of. You see it all the time - the Fleecing of America, It's Your Money, the Golden Fleece Awards, things like that.

Instead, he wanted to motivate talented federal employees in a more positive, inspiring way. To focus on accomplishments and champion the people who were doing the right things in government by shining the spotlight on them. NPR finally settled on the Vice President's Hammer Award as a lasting symbol of the hard work and commitment reinvention demands.

It's the Vice President's common sense reply to the infamous $400 hammer. It's a common sense symbol of common sense government at a cost of only one-and-a-half percent of the original. Your work is an example of "uncommon" common sense.

The Hammer Award symbolizes the common sense work you've done -- breaking apart and building up again. Both are necessary for doing business your way. You know that to do things differently in government, barriers have to be broken down and new approaches and new collaborations built up. Hammers are required for both.

Your Hammer Award also represents something the Vice President has known all along: Reinvention means restoring the trust and faith of the American public in their government. We restore, earn, and maintain trust by consistently meeting the needs and expectations of our customers - the American people.

Your work is already helping to restore that trust - in a very big way. It goes back to the Welfare Reform Act signed by President Clinton in August 1996 - itself a hallmark of reinvention. Under that legislation, law enforcement agencies' felony fugitive files were allowed -- for the first time -- to be matched with government records of current and former food stamp recipients. By matching this information, authorities are able to locate and capture fugitives who might be illegally receiving benefits.

Operation Talon started out as a pilot program in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky to see how the new law could work. After all, this was uncharted territory - government agencies sharing information??? Imagine that!

In May 1997, in partnership with Kentucky's Attorney General and several other state and local law enforcement agencies, the first 85 felony arrests were made. From there, it grew into a nationwide dragnet in 71 metropolitan areas in 24 states and the District of Columbia.

We were struck by the reach of your work - the results are phenomenal. I guess with a name like "Operation Talon," you couldn't go wrong. It literally symbolizes a hawk swooping down and taking fugitives off the street. A pretty powerful image...

These are the most recent statistics:

  • 6000 arrests, including 40 fugitives wanted for murder or attempted murder;
  • 25 for child molestation;
  • 14 for rape or attempted rape;
  • 10 for kidnapping; and
  • More than 2,000 for assault, robbery, and drug offenses.

To give you just a couple of examples of the outstanding work behind those numbers, one fugitive who was wanted for murder -- and had eluded authorities for four years -- was arrested in a homeless shelter after he applied for food stamps using the shelter's address. Not a very smart move, especially with Operation Talon agents on the case...

In another case, a food stamp recipient who was arrested was a fugitive wanted for selling large amounts of illegal drugs. When he was arrested, he attempted to flee, but an OIG special agent and local police officer tackled and subdued him. It turned out that he was carrying 8 knives, 9 lengths of metal pipe, 3 molotav cocktails, a tire iron, and a screwdriver. He later threatened to burn down the county detention facility and kill OIG special agents and police officers.

Let's give a hand to Senior Special Agent Joe Smith -- the case agent for that operation -- who is here this morning from Chicago...You and your team have made the streets of Chicago safer...

Because of your work through Operation Talon, streets and neighborhoods all over the country are safer today than they were just a few years ago. Lives have undoubtedly been saved. And Shirley Watkins' Food Stamp Program is being run more efficiently - saving Americans valuable tax dollars.

When you first started out, you probably heard a lot from the naysayers who said it would never work. They weren't able to see the same possibilities you saw, but you plowed ahead any way.

But at NPR, and in the Vice President's Office, a vision like yours is known as a "Worthy Thought." The typical bureaucratic reaction of the naysayers to worthy thoughts is the Dilbert Principle: "Change is great - let them do it."

Your Hammer Award shows that the Vice President's initial instinct at the beginning of this reinvention project -- to empower you and your partners -- was the right way to go.

I know each of you will have your own deeply felt feelings about what the Hammer Award means to you personally. I like to think each one is as unique as the individual's work it symbolizes.

But one thing all Hammer Awards have in common is that they reflect your personal legacy. Five, 10, 20, even 35 years from now, you will be able to tell your family and your neighbors, your children and grandchildren, or your friends' children and grandchildren that you were here at an historic time in the life of our country.

You are in excellent company -- among the heroes of reinvention. You're forever changing the way government works -- shaping our government for the new century and rebuilding the trust and faith of the American public in their government.

Congratulations again on your tremendous efforts and outstanding results. Wear your pins proudly. You are in excellent company. Share what you have learned. Encourage others to always voice their "worthy thoughts" and plow ahead. I know my friend Secretary Glickman will back you up. And so will Vice President Gore.

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