By: Paul Lawrence
Who or what inspired you to work in public service?
My parents inspired me to work in public service. My father was a career Army Officer, participated in Korea and Vietnam, and now rests in Arlington Cemetery. His commitment to protecting our way of life encouraged me to also join the Army, through ROTC. My mother was a public school teacher. She showed me how powerful effective teaching and training can be. Both devoted most of their professional lives to pubic service. This influenced my decision to work in the public sector businesses of consulting firms and to eventually take a senior position in government.
What is your favorite class that you ever taught or took and why?
I have a Ph.D. in economics so this is easy to answer – both taking and teaching – economics. The tools and insights economics provides can help leaders in both the private and public sector make better decisions. When I see our public leaders struggling with allocating resources, scarcity, and rising prices, I doubt they paid attention during introductory economics. I am glad to see the best public administration programs, training future government leaders, emphasize economics.
What advice can you give to folks beginning careers in public service?
It’s too easy to focus only on your agency. Pay attention to what’s going on in the private sector in areas that are similar or adjacent to your agency’s mission. Government agencies are not unique. Much of the work in a government agency has private sector analogies. Often similar work in the private sector is done faster and more efficiently and effectively. Study what they are doing to determine if adopting similar approaches and practices can improve how your agency serves citizens.
Was there a transformational experience in your life that relates to public service?
Yes, serving as a political appointee, leading a large government organization responsible for delivering services and benefits to Veterans. When I was approached to be the Under Secretary of Benefits at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, I had a good job in the private sector and was comfortably plugging along. I quickly realized, however, that this was the opportunity to “get in the ring” as Teddy Roosevelt said, and make a difference for Veterans. It was hard and challenging, requiring significant personal changes, but I was glad I had that opportunity. I worked with a great team, improved service to Veterans, but saw firsthand how much more remains to be done. I encourage anyone, especially Veterans, who want to make an impact through public service, to explore opportunities at the VA.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
I asked an incredibly successful business person for advice about how to take my career to the next level. I was surprised when he said “show up prepared.” He explained that many people don’t do their homework or take the time to understand the material or subject. Being prepared, he believed, put him ahead of 90 percent of the other people. I was initially skeptical, but took his advice. I found it to be accurate and invaluable.