By Steve Kelman

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The story of Carl S. English Jr.

gardens brochure

I have been visiting the Pacific Northwest to give a speech at a government conference – the weather is comfortably in the high 70s ' (for non-US readers, that's about 25 C.), with low humidity and blue skies. It is nice to be here in Seattle rather than the hot and humid East.

I have taken advantage of my trip to visit the Army Corps of Engineers canal lock system at the entrance to Seattle on Puget Sound, which is open to the public. The lock system itself is a great example of a modest government infrastructure investment that has created enormous economic benefits: the port of Seattle is very important to trade between the US and Asia.

However, I'm not writing about my visit because of the lock itself. We learned during the interpretive tour of the lock that the site is the only Corps of Engineers location in the country that also includes a botanical garden, the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden. (Here is a link to a Youtube video about the garden.)

And we learned about Carl S. English Jr., after whom the garden was named.

Carl S. English Jr. was a young botanist who was hired by the locks during the Great Depression to tend the grounds. In keeping with Army aesthetics, the grounds were set up as a field where soldiers could muster or march for public events, but in reality it was not being used at all. There was no budget available to plant flowers, which English thought would really beautify the area. On his own time, when he travelled to various places, he bought himself seeds for his own garden, and planted some of them on the grounds of the locks. But that only provided a limited variety of flower varieties. Still with no budget, he traded seeds he had gathered for seeds for other flower varieties. Over several decades – English spent 43 years tending the grounds -- the flowers grew, and now include some 1,500 varieties.

I was moved by English's story, and I thought about its significance for civil servants today. First, English saw some unused space, came up with an idea for using it better, and took the initiative to make an improvement. Some would argue he should have gone through the chain of command with formal requests to initiate his innovation, but of course Corps officials must have frequently visited the site and could have told him to stop if the results of his initiative were bad. As our guide said, "He followed the idea that it's better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission." To me, the bottom line is that he cared about and was engaged in what he was doing, and tried to improve the value the government was delivering the public.

Second, he did all this with no budget. This obviously caught my eye in today's tight fiscal environment. I do not think we should be asking federal employees to donate their own resources to provide office supplies or other things an organization needs to do its job – though we do frequently hear stories about school teachers buying classroom supplies from their own pockets when budgets are tight. But I do think that public servants should be trying to think about creative ways to help their organizations deliver mission to the public in a budget environment that inevitably will be constrained for years to come.

Carl S. English Jr. didn't complain or moan. He believed in serving the public, and in walking through the beautiful garden he created, I honor him.

Posted on Jul 18, 2013 at 6:48 AM


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