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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: Dwight Ink

Once heralded as the “Indiana Jones of Public Administrators” and “Mr. Implementation,” Dwight Ink lived a fascinating, charmed life. He held positions in every presidential administration from Eisenhower to Reagan. He helped to establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). In addition, Ink was instrumental in launching the war on poverty in the 1960s. He served as acting director of the General Services Administration (GSA) under President Ford and helped to implement the 1978 civil service reform initiative during the Carter administration. I discuss Ink in my forthcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement.”

He was born on September 9, 1922, and came of age in rural Iowa during the Great Depression. A drought destroyed his family’s orchard, leaving the boy with a lasting impression of the effects of poverty. Later in life, Ink reflected on the ability of government to assist citizens suffering from poverty and hardship.

After graduating from high school, Ink enrolled at Iowa State University, but World War II interrupted his studies. He joined the army and went off to fight, eventually earning the rank of captain. At war’s end, he returned to Iowa State University and earned the school’s first ever degree in government. From there, he went on to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree.

While he studied public administration in Minnesota, Ink worked part-time for Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey. The mayor’s liberal stance on policies such as civil rights made a lasting impression on the young student. Humphrey’s example illustrated the possible advances that can occur when a government works on behalf of all citizens, including the less affluent.

His first assignment was to serve in the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the federal agency created by Congress and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1946 to control the peacetime development of atomic science and technology in the aftermath of World War II. In 1954, Congress enacted a law to help develop the commercial nuclear power industry. In 1974, the AEC was abolished and many of its duties were assigned to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

During his AEC tenure, Ink lived and worked at the agency’s sites in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and in Washington, D.C. He later worked in the Kennedy administration on nuclear disarmament issues. The highlight of his time in the agency was a trip to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he met with President Kennedy to discuss nuclear issues.

Ink’s first claim to fame occurred following the Great Alaskan earthquake of 1964. On March 27, 1964—Good Friday—a 9.2 earthquake struck south central Alaska. Lasting four minutes and 38 seconds, the quake was the most powerful earthquake recorded in North America and the second most powerful earthquake in recorded human history. Several Alaska cities, including Valdez, Whittier, Seward, and Kodiak, suffered catastrophic damage. Tsunamis caused damage as far away as Hawaii and Japan. One hundred and thirty-one people died.

A team of scientists began to assess the damage even as the United States military sprang into action to provide logistics and transportation support. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the entire state of Alaska a major disaster area, allowing federal resources to be used for recovery efforts. As part of the recovery efforts, the president appointed Ink to lead the Alaskan reconstruction effort, especially focusing on rebuild highways, harbors, and cities.

Many years later, Ink recalled his approach to the project. First and foremost, the president empowered career civil servants to lead the recovery. “It was a dramatic example of a president unleashing the competence and innovation of our career leaders in handling urgent national initiatives,” he said. “No political appointees were between the president and operational leaders of the recovery.”

Ink reported that he was “given tacit approval by the president to streamline or even suspend any agency procedure that jeopardized our ability to meet reconstruction schedules.” Typical agency accountability measures were set aside in the interests of moving quickly and efficiently. Ink and his team moved swiftly, moving personnel and equipment where they were needed without worrying about ordinary bureaucratic rules such as competitive bidding.

Intergovernmental collaboration among multiple federal agencies as well as state and local agencies along with private sector firms allowed the team to respond to crises with unprecedented efficiency. Ink stressed the speed of the response. “Had we not used each of these measures, Alaska recovery would have failed, and the state would have been largely abandoned,” Ink noted.

He learned how to use federal executive branch agencies to achieve his goals. “I regret the notion that the bureaucracy is non-responsive,” Ink once told an interviewer. “The problem is that we don’t do a good job of providing good leadership. The bureaucracy does respond to good leadership at the top-management level. They have to know what’s expected.”

From his work on Alaska’s recovery, Ink moved to President Johnson’s War on Poverty, which he helped to implement. He later served as the director of the Community Services Administration (CSA), the successor to the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the program established in 1964 to lead the War on Poverty. In the early 1980s, after Ronald Reagan stepped into the presidency, Ink was tapped to dismantle the CSA.

During the Nixon administration, Ink undertook myriad duties across several agencies. He became the head of management in a newly restructured agency that was renamed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He also helped create the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He was acting director of the General Services Administration (GSA) during the Ford Administration.

Arguably Ink’s greatest accomplishment was assisting the Carter administration in designing and implementing the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. It was a daunting task, but the reform took shape in only 18 months. Jimmy Carter had campaigned for the presidency in 1976 by promising, among other things, to reform the bureaucracy. It was left to bureaucrats to work out the details, and Dwight Ink was more than equal to the task.

The reform measure that emerged in 1977 and 1978 was the first major civil service reform in 95 years. The new law abolished the Civil Service Commission, replacing it with three entities: The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), and the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). Moreover, the law created a 9,200-member Senior Executive Service with top managers “shielded” from direct political pressure. Recognizing that government compensation was unlikely to match private sector pay rates, the law nonetheless established a higher federal pay scale, especially for senior personnel. It also ensured whistleblowers would be protected to a greater extent than in the past by creating the Office of Special Counsel. The law relaxed the Hatch Act, which prohibited career civil servants from engaging in certain forms of political activities, for 2.8 million federal employees.

He retired from government service several times, but he was always called back to help institute a new initiative or a major reform. During the 1980s, Ink served as assistant secretary for Latin America at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). At USAID, Ink worked on a variety of seemingly intractable issues, including a civil war in Central America, U.S. actions against Manuel Noriega, the brutal dictator of Panama, as well as political turmoil in Argentina and Chile. He retired the last time in 1989, but Ink’s career had not ended. He soon became president of the Institute of Public Administration. For more than half a century, Ink was a member of the American Society for Public Administration (including a term as president) and served as a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). In 2016, NAPA named the organization’s fellowship hall in its Washington, D.C. headquarters after Ink.

In 2011, Government Executive magazine listed Ink among the 20 greatest federal employees of all time. He received an honorary doctorate from Iowa State University when he was 96 years old. That same year, he published a textbook on public management. In 2019, Ink was among the first inductees in the Government Hall of Fame. Teddy Roosevelt, the Apollo 11 Astronauts, Elliot Richardson, Colin Powell, and Anthony Fauci were among the other honorees.

Ink was named a NAPA fellow in 1969.

Ink was typically humble as he received his numerous honors. “It has been a privilege to devote a career to the public service,” he said on one occasion. “Contrary to the negative image of a government bureaucrat, I have found work in government at all levels to be the most challenging, exciting and fulfilling of any field I can imagine.”

Ink died on October 17, 2021. He was 99 years old.

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