New Fels director: 'This is just a perfect place for me to be.'

Fay Ajzenberg-Selove Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

David Thornburgh, the new executive director of the Fels Institute of Government, describes himself as a huge fan of Penn founder Ben Franklin.

Thornburgh, the son of former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, says that after the events commemorating Franklin’s 300th birthday in 2006, he became more impressed than ever with Penn’s founder. Thornburgh sees Franklin as “one of the great early Americans,” and a man who made enormous contributions not only to his country, but to Penn as well.

Thornburgh says he views Franklin’s marriage of the theoretical and the practical—or as Thornburgh calls it, “the think, and the do”—as the essence of leadership. It’s a philosophy that ultimately attracted him to Fels.

“The think-and-do approach to leadership that Penn embodies, and that Fels embodies, in the areas of public leadership and public service, is great and exciting and energizing,” he says. “This is just a perfect place for me to be right now.”

A graduate of Haverford College and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Thornburgh is here at Penn for his second stint, having previously served as director of the Wharton School’s Small Business Development Center from 1988 to 1994.

Thornburgh brings more than two decades of experience in civic and public affairs leadership roles to Penn, having led Econsult, a Philadelphia-based regional economic consulting firm; the Alliance for Regional Stewardship, a nationwide peer-to-peer network of regional leaders working across boundaries to solve community problems; and the Pennsylvania Economy League in Greater Philadelphia.His plan is for the Institute to follow in the footsteps of Penn’s founder by making “enormous contributions” of its own.

Q. In your welcome on the Fels website, you say, ‘Probably too often, conversation about public issues revolves around personalities, ideology and symbols rather than how public policies and public investment can actually improve people’s lives.’ With so many important issues at hand, why do you think personalities continue to win out and how can this be overcome?
It’s kind of inescapable, for one, and there is something important about that too. Elections are competitions and will always be, and people who run for office tend to be very competitive. There comes a point where—and this is true whether you’re competing in the 100-yard dash or elected office or in the corporate world—when you’re competing, you want to win. You don’t compete to come in third or come in second. So particularly with [a month or so] left to go in the election, I think both [Republican Nominee John McCain and Democratic Nominee Barack Obama] are intensely focused on the need to win. To the extent that they can cut through all the clutter, it’s really important for people to know who these people are and what has nurtured them and supported them and guided them and who’s been important people in their lives and how they’ve dealt with challenges and loss and uncertainty before. So I won’t discount, particularly in an election, the need to understand political personalities but, having said that, there’s a real difference between governing and being elected. Governing, I think, is much more focused on, at the end of the day, spending tax dollars on improving the lives of taxpayers. That’s sort of the job boiled down to the essence. I think from the Fels perspective, we have always promoted the idea that these two tracks of politics and management are very much intertwined. But from our standpoint, we want to encourage and support and embrace the idea that you run for office and you get elected in order to improve the lives of all Americans. So those two streams of politics and management, I suppose you could even say sort of the thinking and the doing, they are interwoven. But in our view, politics is not an end unto itself, it’s a means to an end, and that’s an appreciation we want stimulated and encouraged among our graduates and the people that we work with.

Q. You mentioned bringing together the ‘think and the do’ at Fels. While at the Pennsylvania Economy League, you talked about the organization changing from an ‘order-taker’ organization to a ‘think-and-do tank.’ Do you think one of the problems in public service is too much thinking and not enough doing?
There are ideas and then there’s reality. I guess the ideal is good ideas that also become reality. I think we, in public life and in public policy, probably spend more time thinking about what the answer ought to be, the answer to improving schools or global warming or the transportation policy, and probably not as much time really understanding how to get to the right answer, how leadership in a democratic process works toward achieving those results and those ends. I think that’s what leaves a lot of people cynical. There’s a lot of talk about your position on this and your position on that and, again, effective leadership is embracing good ideas and moving those ideas into reality. And that comes back to, I think, the way we see the world, which is that to move those good ideas into practice takes an integrated approach that intertwines politics and management and policy. So it’s not compartmentalized. Anybody in public life will tell you the hardest thing is getting stuff done. The hardest thing is not generating the new ideas or coming up with a brilliant analysis of public issues or public programs, the hardest thing is literally delivering the goods, whether that’s in the context of a legislature getting a bill passed and signed or from the community level. How does anybody figure out what the City of Philadelphia or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or this larger region needs and wants and then how do we organize to get that done? That’s the tough stuff.

Q. A short biography of your father from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission reads, ‘In an era of gasoline lines and public skepticism about nuclear energy, the Commonwealth established an Energy Development Authority and examined alternative energy technologies.’ That was decades ago and we are still facing the same energy problems today. How, in a democracy, can we better ensure that good ideas are turned into actions?
A friend of mine describes good leaders, particularly in public life, as being like surfers who are always out there looking for a good wave to ride. Their unique talent is being able to see that wave coming and then ride it skillfully. Translated, that means that for everything, there’s a season. It really is as much about understanding when there’s a window of opportunity to get something done and being prepared for that opportunity. You have a good idea, well thought through, you have an execution plan because that window’s not going to be open forever. I think what we’re seeing right now around the issue of energy is kind of a double or triple threat. People are, long-term, for the sake of their children and their grandchildren, concerned about the fate of the earth and global warming and so forth. Short-term, they’re concerned about rising energy prices and how it affects their home heating bills and their gasoline bill and so forth. And the third piece is they’re concerned about the international politics of energy. So all of that comes together to suggest that it looks like there’s a window of opportunity right now to advance some ideas on alternative energy or new ways of regulating towards reducing greenhouse gases. And I think our challenge is to sort of cut through the clutter and seize a few ideas and make them happen, whether that’s federal legislation, state legislation or, particularly in this area, there are all kinds of innovations and opportunities in the private sector that can also solve some of those public issues.

Q. You have listed a powerful blend of substantive knowledge, refined intuition, and political savvy as the skills needed for the leaders of organizations and communities to achieve results. Are there any other specific attributes you think political, business or community leaders should have?
Humility. Some blend of humility and confidence. I think we want our leaders to be confident in their abilities but there’s a line between confidence and arrogance. I admire people who are frankly able to listen and change their minds too. I think listening is a really important skill. If you’re out there all the time talking to both experts and common people, you ought to be willing to change your approach, change your opinion based on what you see and you hear. I also, in an election season, am a believer that people are pretty consistent and we can learn a great deal about both John McCain and Barack Obama from their own life stories and their ability to deal with tough decisions and challenges and personal disappointment. I guess another quality that I think is really important is resiliency, which is kind of the ability to keep coming back. Maybe it’s stubbornness to an extent. Arguably the toughest job on the planet is being President of the United States and you hope to win more than you lose, but you’re going to lose a lot. Everything’s going to have a twist or turn to it that you didn’t expect and you need to keep coming back off the mat, as they say.

Q. Do you think political skills are something that can be learned in a classroom or do you have to learn it by doing it?
I think both. I think that’s sort of emblematic of what Fels is all about—you learn and you do. We are unusual among the top-flight programs around the country in that we very strongly encourage and expect our students to take on a number of internships or work on projects. Interestingly, we have a lot of Fels students working with the city budget office and the people they’re working with are Fels graduates. So we’ve got this kind of pipeline. We’ve worked with state government over the last year around performance improvement projects—how can we make state government and the budget process work better to achieve better outcomes at less cost? Some of the political skills can be learned because, increasingly, important political skills have to do with communication, and as they say, good communication begins with good listening. If you walk into a situation and you’re trying to get a feel for a organization, talking to people, and then kind of constructing and communicating a story, a vision or sense of purpose about what that organization’s about. There’s a lot of interesting research out there about how important storytelling is in communities and in politics and in organizations and business, I think partly because we’ve gotten so overwhelmed with numbers and data and PowerPoint presentations.
This is sort of in the rarefied air but you watch what Barack Obama and John McCain are going through everyday. They’re bombarded by events but they’re trying to communicate a story and a vision and promise about who they are that connects with people. And once you connect with people at that level, they’ll be with you. I think actually that accounts for Sarah Palin’s kind of bubble. She had a story that people could connect with.

Q. Did growing up in a political family affect your perspective on politics in general?
My father was elected governor when I was 18 so my whole childhood he was a prosecutor. He was a prosecutor and sort of a crusading, civically-engaged lawyer in the early 60s. My mother never ran for office herself but her whole life has been dedicated to advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. The role model of my parents has been people who dedicated their lives to serving others and public service.
I think in my father’s example, some of that passion has been channeled through “capital P” Politics, running for office and being involved in the party mechanisms. My mother’s example has been much less so. She, as a volunteer and a professional advocate, has kind of contributed in other ways. But, having said that, I do have an up close and personal feel for the demands of running for office and serving in office. That has been enormously helpful to me and I think has been kind of a unique insight.

Q. From your experience, are most Fels students here because they want to be politicians?
I think the stage in which we catch people here, what they’ve figured out is that they have an instinct to serve and to contribute to public life. I think they are here partly to sort of sort out how to channel that. And for some of them that will mean running for office. We’ve had governors and congressmen and mayors as Fels graduates. For others, it’ll be running nonprofit organizations or social service organizations. For others, it’ll be serving in an appointed position in state government, local government. But I think, just based on the contact I’ve had, we have tremendous students who have a very strong instinct towards public service and they’re here both to sharpen their skills and kind of accelerate the process by which they can have an impact, and also just get some direction about where exactly their skills and interests can fit in.

Q. You helped establish The Enterprise Center, the West Philadelphia organization that provides business education and economic development opportunities to high-potential minority entrepreneurs. Can you talk a little bit about what led to its creation?
That all started in 1988-89 when I was working at Wharton. This was at a time when the country was sort of waking up to the importance of entrepreneurship and Wharton has always had a strong focus in that area. I was working with some other folks there at Wharton, one of whom was Larry Bell, who works for Penn as director of Business Services. He and I and some other folks got to thinking about how we could bring some of Wharton’s knowledge about entrepreneurship and the promotion of entrepreneurship out into the larger community. We fastened on the idea of creating a small business incubator. I was 29 years old at the time and thought, ‘A piece of cake. We’ll just get this thing started.’ And we did. We were originally housed at 46th and Market and were leasing some space there for a few years and then needed to grow and kind of wanted to have our own building. By that time, I had been very fortunate and ran across Della Clark, the long-time president of the center, and hired her. She’s a really amazing entrepreneurial Energizer bunny. We were able to raise a couple million dollars without accruing any debt to buy the old American Bandstand studio at 46th and Market and renovated that into an amazing business incubator and business accelerator that’s won all kind of awards. I think the YES program is one of my favorites. It’s really introducing entrepreneurship and small business to lots of people who really hadn’t thought or considered that as a career or as a part of their lives. If there’s one thing we know about what makes for strong communities and strong economies is the entrepreneurial spirit. I think The Enterprise Center has succeeded as both the physical embodiment and manifestation of that entrepreneurial spirit, and then, in a practical way, has worked with literally thousands of people over the years to help them realize their dreams.
And I should say, I think the folks at Wharton and at Penn back in the late ’80s deserve a great deal of credit for allowing this to happen and helping to support it in the early years. I count it as one of the great success stories of Penn’s involvement in the larger West Philadelphia community.

Q. You’ve been in the greater Philadelphia area for most of your adult life. Is there something about the area that has kept you here?
I have lived all over the place, in a sense. I went to school in Boston, I grew up in Pittsburgh, I lived in Chicago for a while. I lived for a time out on the West Coast. I’ve traveled a lot. I just think Philadelphia has a wonderful balance of just about everything, of work life, of family life, schools, culture, recreation, education. I’m a city person so I never had an interest in not living in a city.

Q. Philadelphia is often talked about as being one of the next great American cities, but it has not yet gotten there. Is there something you think is holding the city back or are we on the right path?
I think we are on the right path. I think we have been on a roll for a number of years, sometimes at fits and starts. But this is a competitive world and places compete for people and investment and businesses and entrepreneurs, and it’s a global competition. I think we still have a ways to go to compete effectively, to win more than we lose. After a while, I concluded that the two biggest items on our to-do list, one is our tax structure and tax burden. It’s a very high-cost place to live and do business and as long as that’s true, we’re going to struggle. The other big challenge is building a better-educated workforce. Now interestingly, those two things have been very high on the mayor’s to-do list, and have been ever since he’s been active in City Council. Businesses more and more compete for talent and we have to be able to demonstrate that we have a critical mass of that talent. Then we also have to be able to demonstrate that this is an affordable place to do business. I think part of the tax problem is not just the rates but the hassle factor. I think the city has a ways to go in improving just its basic transactions and relationships, particularly with small businesses. Philadelphia and the Philadelphia region for some time has had very low rates of business creation and business growth, and I think part of the reason for that has been our tax structure and our tax administration. You can’t torture entrepreneurs and small businesses and expect them to hang around.

Q. As the former head of the Pennsylvania Economy League, do you have any thoughts on the country’s current economic troubles?
This has been a tough [few weeks]. I think with every kind of domino falling over it produces a lot of anxiety, directly and indirectly. There will come a time, and I think we’re getting there, when things are going to stabilize, or maybe you could say bottom out. Economics is all about psychology and expectations and what is most troubling and what sends markets tumbling is uncertainly and anxiety and sort of a fear of the unknown. And in this case, the speculation ... I think has really fueled a lot of the anxiety, which then translates into the market tumbling. For better or for worse, we now know what’s going to happen to [AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Lehman Brothers], and so that alone takes some anxiety off the shelf. I was just up visiting Hyde Park, New York, which is where Franklin Roosevelt was born and raised. That’s where his presidential library is and there’s an exhibit on the first 100 days of the Great Depression. Twenty-five percent of the American workforce was out of work. So what we do know is that even from depths like that, we come back. Things go down, and then they go up. Which isn’t to minimize the pain and the wrenching fear that people go through but I think as each one of these uncertainties are resolved, that’ll add a little more confidence. The other thing too, from my time at Wharton and working with entrepreneurs, you can’t ever discount the ingenuity and creativity and competiveness of entrepreneurs and that sense of resilience. You get knocked down 99 times and you get up for the 100th round. The American economy and the world economy are very resilient. We’re going to work stuff out.

Q. You mentioned that it would take some extraordinary event for you to leave the area. Gov. Rendell is term-limited in 2010 and Sen. Arlen Specter is up for reelection the same year. Like father, like son?
Well look, I just got here. I’m really thrilled with this Fels opportunity and the great people here. I think we’ve got a great sort of position in the world at a time when the University is really taking off, so there’s lots of good work to do here.

Originally published Oct. 2, 2008

Originally published on October 2, 2008