I entered public service under unorthodox circumstances, after a tragedy hit in my hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
In 1986, a disgruntled citizen entered a public meeting in Mount Pleasant and fatally shot our mayor. Two city council members were seriously wounded in that attack. Soon after, I was asked by the mayor’s father to consider running to finish his term.
At the time, my two young boys were worried about the possibility of their father entering public service. Following the tragedy in our town, they were worried that public service is something that hurts you. A big reason I took that first job was to show my boys that public service is a wonderful opportunity to help — not a burden to be feared.
I believed then, as I do now, that we have a unique opportunity as public servants to achieve great things.
At the same time, it takes a special commitment and extraordinary responsibility to undertake a job in the public trust — and as we celebrate Public Service Recognition Week, I’m reminded of the many ways in which public servants lead by example and do whatever it takes to get the job done. All too often, it’s a story Americans don’t take time to appreciate.
For example, at the Agriculture Department, we have 94,000 employees stationed across the nation and around the world. I couldn’t be more proud of this team today.
Like so many across government, USDA staff members have been asked in recent years to do more with less. The department’s discretionary budget that funds operations is now below fiscal 2009 levels. But at every turn, our team has stepped up to find a way to get their job done.
In the face of declining operating budgets, they took proactive steps through a Blueprint for Stronger Service to identify cost savings — cutting travel, streamlining information techology contracts, improving procurement and much more. Cost avoidances and efficiencies have totaled more than $820 million in recent years, and this effort has touched every office and every employee in our department. The Blueprint for Stronger Service stands as an example of the streamlined, efficient federal government U.S. taxpayers expect and deserve.
Because USDA staff have gone above and beyond their normal duties to execute these new cost savings, they have put our department on a path to continue delivering superior results. That means folks can still depend on us — from the farmers, ranchers and small businesses that are the lifeblood of rural America to American families who depend on access to safe, nutritious food.
I know there are stories across the federal workforce of similar accomplishments. Over the course of Public Service Recognition Week, we don’t just have a chance to recognize the positive role of government to our nation, states and communities — we have a chance to remember that each of us plays a small and important role in the greater good. We have a chance to remember why we serve.
More than 20 years after I entered public service, I still love my job each day. I know we’re making a difference in the lives of millions of people who deserve the greatest service on Earth, in the greatest nation on Earth. I come to work each day knowing USDA’s efforts are impactful for every American and for millions around the world. The same can be said for employees across government.
Even as we work together to overcome challenges and do more with less, I hope folks at every level of government will take time to reflect on their own laudable achievements this week. They certainly deserve to do so.
Tom Vilsack is Agriculture secretary.