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Senator Kaufman: 'Your word is your bond'

Tom Fox | Partnership for Public Service

Sen. Ted Kaufman is the junior senator from Delaware appointed in 2009 to fill the unexpired term of senator now Vice President Joseph Biden. Kaufman was Biden’s chief of staff for 19 years and was a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. One of Kaufman’s senate endeavors has been his Great Federal Employees Initiative, an ongoing series of floor speeches honoring outstanding federal employees.

What did you learn about leadership while serving as Senator Biden’s chief of staff?

Probably the most important thing, which is the single most important part of being a senator, is that your word is your bond.I have students I teach at Duke and I bring them up every year and they meet with senators, House members, staff people, lobbyists and think tank and media people. People in all those areas say the single most important thing on the Hill is that people can trust your word.


Senator Ted Kaufmann (D-RI)

What advice do you have for federal leaders on how they can best work with the Hill?

Tell the truth, and make sure you’ve got your facts right. Do not hide bad news. Stay ahead of the curve about what you’re doing. If you educate yourself about how the process works and how decisions are made, I think that is incredibly helpful. The biggest problem you have dealing with the Congress if you’re in the executive branch or corporate America is the way power is shared. It’s very different from a hierarchical organization.

You are the only current senator to have worked as an engineer. How does your background in engineering affect your leadership style?

I think there are different ways to approach it. Start making the rationale at the beginning. Where are we? What are the facts? And then get to the nuances. The other thing that I think is helpful from engineering is to deal with the whole system — taking what we used to call a total concept to look at things.

What tricks and methods do you use to manage your time?

First off, it’s really, really, really, important to have a good scheduler. I’m big on planning. I sit down at the beginning of the year and say, “Here are the things that I’ll do this year and that I want to do.” Planning the month ahead, planning the week ahead. I just think it’s incredibly helpful having the senator involved in the big picture. The other is having a really good staff. Everybody’s got to work together.

Why did you decide to lead the “Great Federal Employees Initiative”?

I was scratching an itch. It’s bothered me for the last 30 years that some people felt like they could denigrate federal employees. In the federal government, we have so many incredible superstars. They’re there because they want to make a difference. When I talk about federal employees, I don’t just talk about the people who won the Nobel Prize or discovered the cause of cancer. If you look at the list, it’s a mosaic that shows the overall quality.

John Gardner, who started Common Cause, wrote a book called “Excellence.” He said (I’m paraphrasing) a society that values its philosophers and doesn’t value its plumbers – because philosophy’s uplifting and plumbing isn’t – will be a society where neither its ideas nor its pipes will hold water.

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