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Zarnetske Hails Public Service During Swearing in Ceremony

As Prepared for Delivery

Remarks of
Robert Zarnetske
Regional Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration
New England Region
Swearing-in Ceremony
January 26, 2011
Boston, Mass.

I want to thank Martha Johnson. Madam Administrator, I hope you know that you’re loved up here. Your intelligence, your leadership, your style, your genuineness are deeply appreciated by the men and women who work for GSA in New England. In the few weeks I’ve been here, I’ve noticed that the words “breath of fresh air” are often uttered in close proximity to your name.

I also want to thank Steve Leeds [Senior Counselor to the Administrator]. Steve, in a short time, you have earned the respect of many. We’ve already made great progress on sustainability, and everyone in Region 1 is prepared to work with you to take GSA’s initiatives to the next level.

I also want to thank Glenn Rotondo and Sharon Wall, whose counsel I have already come to rely on, and whose instincts and knowledge I have easily learned to trust and respect. Glenn is the Commissioner for the Public Buildings Service in New England and was the acting Regional Administrator before my appointment, and Sharon is the Commissioner for the region’s Federal Acquisition Service. Glenn, Sharon: Thank you.

I also want everyone to know how much I appreciate [special assistant] Samir Randolph. Samir reminds me of a smarter version of myself at his age. Those of you who have worked with Samir know what an asset he is to the region and how lucky we are to have him here.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for taking the time between snowstorms to be here today and to witness the oath I just swore.

It’s the same oath that many of you have taken. It’s an oath that binds us together. It is a promise we make to ourselves, to each other, and to the public we serve.

And, while we each have the choice about whether to swear or affirm our commitment, every federal employee makes the same promise – using the same words proscribed by statute. Every member of the Senate, every member of Congress, every member of the Cabinet, every federal judge, every military officer and enlisted man, every federal manager, every employee from the vice president of the United States on down. The wording of the president’s oath is slightly different, but the meaning is the same.

It is an oath that roots us in a tradition as old as the nation itself.

You may not know this, but each of us is required to take the oath because the Constitution says so.

Article VI, Clause 3 of the Constitution provides:

“The Senators and Representatives, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.”

In 1789, one of the very first laws enacted by the United States Congress established the language of the oath to be sworn by state and federal employees. The first United States Congress created a 14-word oath that stated simply: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States."

In April 1861, as the Civil War broke out, President Lincoln ordered all federal civilian employees within the executive branch to take an expanded oath. In an emergency session in July 1861, Congress enacted legislation supporting the president’s action. The oath was legislatively expanded and modified again in 1862.

And finally, in 1884, Congress passed legislation establishing the current language of the oath and mandated that those exact words be spoken and committed to by all federal employees.

What’s interesting about the American oath of office is that it is expressly a commitment to a set of ideals. It is not an oath to a king or a queen. It is not an oath to the government. It’s an oath to support and defend the principles contained within the Constitution. It is an oath to bear true faith and allegiance to those ideals.

The American oath of public office is not just a commitment to do a good job; it’s a commitment to push for the realization of the ideals expressed in our Constitution.

By swearing the oath, by making the affirmation, we each commit ourselves to actively advancing the principles embodied in what is now the world’s longest enduring written constitution.

You and I have agreed to take up the mantle and carry the revolutionary ideas expressed in Philadelphia forward.

We have committed to dedicate our efforts in everything we do to help form a more perfect union, to establish justice, to ensure domestic tranquility, to help provide for the common defense, and to promote the general welfare.

We have promised to help secure the blessings of liberty, not only for ourselves but for our neighbors, and not only for now but for the generations that will follow us.

The words of the Constitution written more than two centuries ago are not dead letters written for a bygone time. They express the fundamental goals of humanity in all times. They convey the founders’ belief that seeking to achieve these goals is the proper role of a government made by the people for the benefit of the people.

These goals are not just some ancient ephemeral thing. They are the very basis of the work that we do every day. These goals are the goals we work toward in everything we do.

We are heirs to, and stewards of, an extraordinary legacy.

So, the next question is this: How can we bear true faith and allegiance to the ideals contained in the Constitution?

How do we do what we’ve promised to do? How do we, who have inherited this amazing American dream of justice and peace and well-being, how do we move our community closer to the realization of that dream?

The answer is in both the work we do and the way we do it.

When we help the United States Army modernize a facility and install solar panels or geothermal heating systems to ensure that the building will operate even if the power grid is down – as we have in Waltham, Mass. – we help provide for the common defense.

When we help design and maintain federal courthouses, we help establish justice.

When we take the lead in greening the nation’s vehicle fleet or reducing greenhouse gases by cutting heating fuel consumption, we are promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty for future generations.

What we do matters.

But how we do it matters, too.

One of my first jobs in the federal government was working for an incredible career civil servant named Bob Knisely. Bob started the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics and was its interim Director and Deputy Director back in early '90s when I was a presidential management intern. Bob had a knack for coming up with interesting ways to simplify complicated problems. One of my favorite Knisely stories was what he called the Wart-Hopper Index.

The index was designed to encourage federal employees to be innovative, to take risks, and explore new possibilities.

The “Wart” end of the Wart-Hopper index took its name from the lead character in T.H. White’s book “The Once and Future King.” The book chronicles the boyhood education of King Arthur. In the book, Merlin, a wizard who lives through time backward and, therefore, knows the boy's destiny, teaches the young Arthur – who was nicknamed "Wart" – what it means to live a virtuous life.

To teach Wart, Merlin turns him into various kinds of animals so he can see the world from their perspectives.

At one point in the book, Merlin changes Wart into an ant, and as he is about to enter the ant hill, there’s a sign over the entrance that reads, “EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY.”

For ants, there is no discretion. You either do it because you were told to do it, or you don’t do it at all.

So that’s the “Wart” end of the Wart-Hopper Index. Life on the Wart end of the index isn’t very enjoyable for individual workers, and if everybody operates like the ants do, then nothing really ever changes.

The “Hopper” end of the Wart-Hopper Index takes its name for Rear Adm. Grace Hopper.

Admiral Hopper was a computer scientist and U.S. Navy officer. She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, and she’s the person who came up with the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of transferable programming; before that all computers were hard-wired.

Supposedly, Admiral Hopper is also responsible for coining the phrase to “debug” computer systems. As the story goes, she was working with an open circuit computer and found that the reason the computer stopped working was that a moth had landed on a circuit board and shorted out the computer. She supposedly stapled the moth to a memo that read, “I have debugged the system.”

Admiral Hopper is a legend in both the computer and Navy worlds. The U.S. Navy even named a ship after her. Because of her accomplishments and contributions, she’s often referred to as the “Amazing Grace Hopper.”

Admiral Hopper once gave a commencement speech at Vassar in which she advised the graduates that, “It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission." So be creative, do what you believe is right, and if it doesn’t work out, ask for forgiveness.

On the Hopper end of the Wart-Hopper Index, people take the initiative and know that if they make mistakes, forgiveness will be forthcoming.

So, you’ve got this index. I think it’s a great way to think about creativity and work. Am I working like an ant, or am I working like Amazing Grace?

As I see it, our job, the promise we each made when we took that oath, is to keep the flame of American invention alive, to advance ever closer to the perfect union that is our ultimate aim.

And we succeed in advancing the ideals, not by sitting back and saying, “That’s not my job.” We succeed by being creative. By aggressively seeking new solutions, new ways of saving money, new ways of reducing energy consumption, new ways of stimulating small-business growth. This isn’t somebody else’s job. It’s a job that belongs to each of us who has sworn the oath we heard again today.

I have spoken to many of you already, and I know that you believe as I do that the phrase “good enough for government” is not an excuse to stop working. It’s a challenge to set the bar higher and continue working toward our shared ideals with every bit of energy, every bit of enthusiasm, and every bit of wisdom we can muster.

I have been amazed by the talent here in the New England Region. The vast majority of people I’ve met know what they’re doing; they do it well, and they do it with a pride of mission that is inspiring.

We’ve got game in New England, and we’re going to keep moving the ball forward. Let’s be creative about it!

Now, before I surrender the podium, I’m going to ask one thing of each of you.

Every time you see me in the hallway, every time you see me in a meeting, every time you see me in the elevator, I want you to ask yourself, “Am I moving toward the Hopper end of the index? Am I being as creative as I can be? Am I working like an ant, or am I working like the Amazing Grace Hopper?”

If you’re being creative enough, if you’re doing what you believe is the right thing to do help secure the blessings of liberty for future generations, then smile, and know that I will do everything I can to support you in your efforts, and together, we’ll succeed.

Thank you, and stay warm.


New England Region Robert Zarnetske