Q&A: Sonny Perdue
Sonny Perdue (full profile) is Georgia's 81st governor. Governing Correspondent Jonathan Walters spoke with Perdue about turning Georgia into one of the best managed states in the country, and how he learned to shepherd difficult and controversial bills through the Legislature. Here is an abridged and edited version of the interview:
How did you first get interested in public service?
Initially, I wasn't interested at all. I wasn't one of those 16-year-olds who shook the hand of a president and was inspired from the very beginning to pursue public service. I grew up in mid-Georgia and knew I wanted to be a veterinarian from the ninth grade. So although I was tuned into current events and aware, I had no early interest in politics.
So how then did you end up in the Georgia Senate?
When I served [on our local county planning and zoning committee], I think I gained a reputation for giving people a fair and balanced hearing. When the local senator decided not to run, people who I respect came and asked if I would. Now, I had no ambition to run for elected office. But coincidentally my family and I had planned a trip to Williamsburg around that time, and that honestly had sort of a spiritual impact. That is a place that is all about citizen activism, citizen government, and I knew our Legislature was a citizen-led Legislature, so I talked it over with my family and we thought that this may be a calling, to serve for a period of time and then return home.
So serving in the Legislature must have helped you when you became governor.
It was very valuable experience especially when I became the majority leader after four years in the Senate. I was responsible not just for representing my constituents, but for trying to lead a very diverse group and blend this interesting quilt of representative government that we call a Legislature. How do you build members representing very different districts into a unified group that tries to operate through consensus? You begin to appreciate a broader perspective, and come to realize that there are lots of different views out there and that maybe not everyone thinks the way you do and that's OK. So you learn to listen and consider and reconcile other opinions.
So you decided to run for governor?
Even then I had no aspirations or ambitions to run for governor. I was serving my Senate district and was reelected handily as an R in a district that elected me as a D, and I was really trying to do as good a job for my constituency as I could. But then came the 2001 session, which included a special session on redistricting. The Democratic party in Georgia -- and Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes in particular -- was determined that they were going to align the districts to maximize their majorities in the General Assembly and maximize their majorities in Congress, and in my view it was just trying to stuff the balance box ahead of voting. Frankly, as a citizen and a legislator, I became personally offended by that. So I began a statewide recruiting effort. I went to every Republican member of Congress from Georgia and said, "Please come home and run for governor." But none of them were interested, and they kept pointing their finger back at me.
So, of course, you did run. And, you won. What philosophy did you bring to the job?
I felt both the experience I'd had on my planning and zoning board, and my experience in overall management of a small business-where you do everything from sales, to operations, to accounting, to personnel, to finance, to strategy, to cleaning the bathrooms-really helped shape what I wanted to do. I wanted a customer-service-oriented government that understood that most people don't want a lot from their state government. They have a fairly narrow set of needs that only the state can provide, such as permits and drivers licenses and education. I wanted a state government that was effective and efficient in a way that our citizens just took us for granted.
The initiative that you and Georgia are best known for is the big push on customer service.
The common theme that I'm most proud of--and it sounds so simple but it's really, really difficult to instill in government-is that I wanted government to work for people. That's why we took the business attitude: When you need us we're so good that you don't even give us a second thought. Now, we were not even close to being there when I took office, and there are still areas where we're not there in Georgia. But I wanted to create a state government where people felt that they were getting good value for their tax dollars. For example, there was a time I said that if retailers such as Wal-Mart were allowed to do drivers licenses, we would be run out of business. I wanted to get better so that our customers -- our citizens -- would trust us in continuing to govern, also to support us because they believed they were getting value and that they were getting a return on their taxes. I really believe that people are hungry for their governments to work for them, and I think that's part of the frustration that we're seeing nationally now whether it's manifested in the Tea Party movement or the apathy of maybe people who voted for the president. People feel that their government isn't working for them.
So what's an example of where this transformation to a focus on customer service clearly worked?
Well, we came up with a motto that we put everywhere: Faster, Friendlier, Easier. That was the mindset and the cultural change we were after, and people discovered very quickly that it could work. For example, we took virtually the same workforce in our Department of Motor Vehicles, where it used to take from two to four hours to complete routine transactions and we did a process improvement process that got that down to 15 minutes at the longest. One of the things that employees quickly realized is that it's a whole lot easier dealing with a customer who has been waiting for 10 minutes than one who has been waiting for two hours -- that view really became contagious.
But what about cost and prioritizing what government should and shouldn't actually be doing?
We began a programmatic budgeting process that made people really look very closely at every function of government, every program that they were delivering. We asked them very specific questions: What's the purpose of the program? What's the mission of the program? What are the outcomes that we are trying to achieve? Does this need to be a function of government, and is there someone else who can do it better internally or externally?
That sort of scrub of what government should and shouldn't be doing is getting a lot of press these days because of continued difficult state budgets. Talk more about that.
We've got to have a national and state discussion about what we want government to be to each and every one of us. That's fundamental at this stage of the game. What services do we think government ought to provide, how much is it going to cost and are we willing to fund those needs at an adequate level rather than just getting into this "tax cut, tax cut, tax cut" mindset? I've always maintained that people don't want us to do everything. They want us to do a few things that they can't do for themselves, like public safety or developing a great public education system. So what we need to do is figure out what citizens can do themselves, and where government needs to be involved. Then let our great entrepreneurial, capitalistic, democratic system work.
Finally, there is also a good deal of discussion these days about leadership and how central it is to a functioning and civil society. What's your approach and what approach do you want to see in others?
The essence of leadership in both the public and private sector is this: you have to create a vision and then you have perseverance, resolve and focus to push towards it. There has to be an ability to communicate and sell that vision -- to inspire people. The real essence of leadership in the public sector is that while we can be as focused and determined and relentless in our pursuit of our vision as possible, you must always keep an open ear to those who are out here saying, "Are you sure this is right direction? Is this what we need to do?" You've got to continue to listen, listen, listen.
Photo by David Kidd