Remarks of Ellen Engleman Conners
Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
Columbia Club of Indianapolis
May 6, 2004
I am delighted to see many friends and family here tonight - with the Pacers game and the final episode of "Friends" in competition, I can only assume that you all have TIVO at home.
It is my special pleasure to recognize my mother, Beatrice Engleman Johnson, my best friend and the winner of the "Best Mom" award for 44 years running. Also David Clark is here with me, my chief of staff and guiding light in Washington. I send you the best wishes of my husband, Michael Conners and regret that his battle with cancer keeps him from joining us tonight - I had planned on showing off my new husband but will let the mystery continue until he is well enough to travel.
There are so many of you here that deserve my heartfelt thanks and appreciation, for your friendship, guidance, loyalty, support and help through many years have been a constant part of my life. Your advice and counsel, your mentorship, even your criticism -- always constructive, of course -- and most of all, your good hearts, have helped me in my career and been a part of my path to serving in this Administration.
I always begin my speeches in the following way: "Hello, my name is Ellen Engleman Conners and it is my privilege to serve as the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board." The privilege to serve, the lessons of leadership and my observations of public service during 9/11 and the aftermath are my topic tonight.
This sits on my desk. It has been on my desk -- no matter the job -- since it was created in 1988 when I was working at GTE for Clare Coxey, then Vice President of Public Affairs. Clare and Nelda - thank you for being here tonight. Clare is one of the guideposts in my life. He taught me many things, mentored me and still serves as an example of leadership and good management. Clare, you have no idea how many times I use your name when counseling or managing my staff. You get the credit -- and blame -- for much of what I know and do.
Here is what it says, "Without vision, the people will perish" Proverbs 29; verse 18
Vision is the difference between good leaders and good managers. You must be able to develop and share a Vision and also have the management skills to develop and implement a plan. When you become a political appointee, you don't really get a job description. There isn't a book that tells you how to do your job. You don't really have a performance plan or a "to do" list or even sets of procedures and policies. I remember my first day at the Research and Special Programs Administration or RSPA, which was in June of 2001. We started with a staff meeting which included the Secretary of Transportation, Norm Mineta, along with the other administrators - Mary Peters of Highways, Jeff Runge of NHTSA, Jenna Dorn of Transit, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, and many others. This entire room was filled with these nationally known people with resumes as long as your arm - but we all shared in the fact that in many ways it was the first day of school. And we all were there with eager faces, newly sharpened pencils and a commitment to serve.
And so it began. Fortunately we had an excellent roadmap - the President's Management Agenda or PMA. This plan focused on core areas: development of human capital; fiscal accountability and efficiency; e-government; establishing performance and accountability through results and measurement and a citizen centered government. I took the PMA as a personal goal and used it throughout my time at RSPA, developing a 36 month plan of action for improvement in each of these areas in all nine offices for which I was responsible - pipeline safety, hazardous materials research, emergency transportation, etc. And the job was going great - we were getting to "green" on the red/yellow/green scale that was used to measure results. I had it all laid out. The perfect RSPA business plan - performance and results orientation, cost cutting, improvement of training, enhanced employee morale. And then 9/11 happened.
I remember 9/11, as do each of you, in perfect Kodak clarity. I was walking to work -- as many of you know I lived on a 75-foot houseboat, the Potomac Freedom, berthed a few blocks away from DOT. On the way to work, I would turn off my cell phone for a few minutes of quiet -- nine to be exact - so I could plan the day. When I reached the seventh floor, staff started pulling me into the door as soon as I approached the office. "A plane hit the World Trade Center," someone said. I pictured a small Cessna, hanging tail-out. A sad accident. I glanced at the TV and as I watched, the second plane hit the tower. I put down my purse and said, "Has the Crisis Management Center been activated?" "Yes," was the answer. "Good," I said, "Let's go."
So began an even more extraordinary journey. What began as an opportunity to serve -- to be responsible for a very unique and challenging job in Washington -- changed that morning. All of a sudden, the safety and security of 2.2 million miles of the nation's economic backbone -- our oil, natural gas and aviation fuel pipelines for military and civilian use -- were my responsibility. The protection of 800,000 daily shipments of hazardous material -- which included, by the way, nuclear waste -- became an overwhelming concept. Our Crisis Communications Center, designed for safety accidents, now had to respond to security incidents. And the Federal Response Plan was no longer just a notebook that we carried around. It was an action plan. FEMA teams had to get into New York along with blood and medical supplies. Hazardous materials shipments and pipelines had to be secured. The entire transportation system was at risk, because, for the very first time, our transportation system was turned into a weapon against us. And we had to respond immediately.
So what did we do? Well first of all, President Bush appointed the best team in town in his Cabinet. Our Secretary of Transportation, Norm Mineta, knew what to do and the thousands of aircraft flying in U.S. airspace were brought down safely - saving unknown numbers of lives in the process. The coordination and communication throughout the government was like a well-choreographed ballet. It was not chaotic, it was calm. It was not confused, it was thoughtful. And most of all there was leadership -- from the beginning to the end -- by our President, by his Cabinet and by all of those who have the privilege to serve.
What did we do? In the first 24 hours we were simultaneously identifying vulnerabilities, working with industry and identifying threats. In the first 72 hours we were working through threat analysis, vulnerability analysis and systems reviews. Before the first week was over, we had established plans, and preparations were in place. Progress was being made and security changes were being implemented throughout the entire transportation system. Rail, pipelines, bridges, hazmat shipments, ports, commercial vehicles and drivers, transit systems -- every part of the transportation system was analyzed and immediate changes were being made to ensure safety and lessen vulnerability.
Over the next year, I had the privilege to help with the development of the Transportation Security Administration, served on the Transition Planning Team to help design what would become the Department of Homeland Security and was responsible, along with Admiral Harvey Johnson, for the transfer of the US Coast Guard from the DOT to the new DHS. I even got the Office of Pipeline Safety off the notorious NTSB most wanted list for the first time in 12 years.Well be careful what you do in Washington, because soon thereafter --when Marion Blakely left as Chairman of the NTSB to become FAA Administrator -- I was nominated to be the next Chairman.
And for all the challenges that we faced after 9/11, I must say that the challenges we have in transportation safety are just as compelling and equally dramatic. Every year we lose almost 50,000 people in transportation accidents -- more than 10 times the number lost on 9/11. 43,000 people a year are killed on our highways, and this number is unacceptable. But we can change that as well.
How? The number one impact we can make is to aggressively pursue hard-core drunk drivers. We can save 6000 to 8000 lives a year if all states would toughen drunk driving laws, demand strict judicial enforcement of these laws and develop programs to insure that drunk drivers will not endanger themselves and other drivers and pedestrians who properly use our roads.
Secondly primary seatbelt legislation, children in back, and proper use of child safety seats will save another 10,000 men, women and children in addition to the 14,000 saved each year by seat belt use alone. Plain and simple.
By the way, safety isn't "sexy." It's not glamorous. It is simply common sense combined with discipline.
So, if you will allow, let me conclude by saying, I don't consider myself to be a mover and shaker in DC - more of a pusher and shover - and as Secretary Rumsfeld has his famous Rummy's Rules, let me put forth Ellen's ruminations about serving in DC.
1. Federal Government isn't broken. The thousands of civil servants in the federal government are dedicated professionals who proved themselves before, during and after 9/11. Our job as political appointees is to bring our unique skill sets to support, develop, lead and guide the system to improved performance and results.
2. It is a privilege to serve, not an entitlement. The "thank God I'm here" approach doesn't work. Potomac Fever, inside the beltway myopia and the practice of gilding resumes should never occur. After 9/11, it's especially ludicrous.
3. Always remember who is the customer - the American taxpayer.
4. A political appointment is the greatest temp job in the world. With that in mind, one should "first, do no harm," but, more than that, appointees should focus on a personal commitment to performance and results.
5. Ronald Reagan said it best, "Always leave the dance with the one who brought you." Loyalty is your number one job requirement, loyalty to your oath, your country and your commitment.
6. "Nice" works. Kindness is very important. The joke is that the only friend you can have in Washington is a dog. Well, although it's known that DC is an ambitious town, real friendships do exist. I am blessed by many such friendships - here in Indiana and in Washington.
7. Hoosier Values - hard work, family, and honesty are the keys to success. After the campaign is over, it's time to govern. I have been in two unique circumstances. First as a Republican working for a Democrat, Norm Mineta, who works for a Republican, President Bush and now as head of an independent agency. At DOT, we all worked for the President. At the NTSB, independence is fundamental to our ability to accomplish the mission. We can't be politically adversarial and work to maintain our independence. We must partner for safety - at a local, state and national level among government and industry alike.
8. Say "Thank you." To that note, I must, at this time, thank the many of you in attendance tonight, as well as other individuals and organizations that have mentored and taught me throughout the years. To the Stanley K. Lacy program and Class 12, with special thanks to Margot Eccles and to the late and great Dick DeMars. To the Richard G Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series, Class One with special thanks to Teresa Lubbers, Sue Ann Gilroy, Judy Singleton, Lesley Reser, Ellen Whitt and the Board of Directors. To GTE, Clare Coxey and Jack Hengert. To the participants in Electricore, Delphi Automotive, Delco Remy, Indianapolis Power and Light, Cinergy and IUPUI. With special thanks to Bill Wylam and Gerry Bepko. To special friends at the Hudson Institute including Jimmy Wheeler, and Herb London. To Senator Dick Lugar, the late Governor Bob Orr, Mayors Bill Hudnut and Steve Goldsmith. Special thanks to Bruce Melchert, Bob Gildea, Henry Ryder and Al Armstrong and to my special friends who came to see me tonight - Joan Wolf, Joyce Irwin and Amy Traub.
Let me share one last story. During the first 6 hours of 9/11, we were literally under attack. There were about 30 people in the DOT building, about 15 of which we had in the Crisis Management Center. All sorts of conflicting information were coming into the CMC. At one point, when the volume of information and potential threats were swirling around the room, a moment occurred. Brian Carney, my CMC manager, looked up, saying nothing, but looking at everyone's faces. With just a look he asked, "Everyone OK?" No one responded but there was a comic strip balloon that seemed to appear over everyone's head. The copy, had it appeared, would have said, "We might all die today, but, if that happens, so be it. We're not leaving out posts." No words were spoken, but two years later we all remember that moment and those unspoken words are seared into our hearts.
So I will end my comments tonight with this.
For the privilege to serve, I thank each of you.
You will continue to be in my heart in all that I do.