Jeremi sits down with Robert Campbell to discuss the role of free enterprise in shaping our democracy.
As always, Zachary kicks things off with his scene-setting poem, “Ambitions and Reality.”
Bob Campbell is a friend and business leader who has effectively straddled the public and private sectors in the US for over 45 years. Close to home for me, Bob was a very early graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs where I teach, a Distinguished Alumnus Award winner, and a Chairman of the Board. Bob spent 39 years with the global firm Deloitte where he was a partner; led the public sector practice advising leaders at the Federal, state, and local levels; and served as a Vice-Chairman of the firm. Since retiring from Deloitte, Bob serves on corporate and non-profit Boards, runs his own consultancy, advises private equity groups, and is an active angel investor. He also is on the global Board Executive Committee of the East-West Institute focused on international conflict avoidance and resolution. He is a speaker and writer on public management issues and has served on Federal and state commissions and task forces.
- Robert CampbellFounder and CEO at Campbell Global Services LLC, Speaker, and Writer
- Jeremi SuriProfessor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
Unknown Speaker 0:05
This is Democracy,
Unknown Speaker 0:07
a podcast that explores the interracial intergenerational and intersection of unheard voices living in the world’s most
Unknown Speaker 0:13
Jeremi Suri 0:17
Welcome to our new episode of This is Democracy. Today we’re going to discuss one of the central questions in the history and contemporary discussion of our democracy, which is the role of free enterprise Americans have always been business people, business people of various kinds. And businesses always been at the center of American society before they even was the United States. And today, we’re very fortunate we have with us, one of the leading business actors and thinkers of I would say, the last half century or so, this is Robert Campbell, who’s actually a close friend, I’m very pleased that I get to know and learn from Bob. He’s a business leader who has really straddled public and private sectors in the United States for 45 years. He’s someone who’s been incredibly successful in the business world and brought that success with equal effect into public leadership. here in Austin, we’re very fortunate that he’s not only a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and a Distinguished Alumnus Award winner, but has served as chairman of the board and really left a real imprint on the school for 39 years, Bob was traveling across the country as an across the world with a global firm Deloitte, where he was a partner. And he led their private achievement of public sector practice advising, working with federal state and local leaders and eventually rose to Vice Chairman of the firm. He’s now retired from Deloitte though he seems to be as busy as ever. He serves on various corporate and nonprofit boards runs his own consultancy, and he’s on the global Executive Committee, the east west Institute, which is one of the most important organizations pursuing and supporting diplomacy in many ways between societies between non state actors as well as state actors around the world. Bob, that’s a long introduction, but I think you deserve it. Thank you for being here.
Robert Campbell 2:15
Oh, you’re so thoughtful. Congratulations on the podcast series. These are just superb, and I think make a real difference for students, your other listeners and the country’s well. Thank you, Bob. Thank you for being a part of this. Before we turn to our discussion with Bob, we have of course, a poem from Mr. Zachary Siri, what’s the title of your poem today?
Zachary Suri 2:34
ambitions and reality? Let’s hear about it. Where are they gone? The open faced sandwiches of men looking forward with eyes that see the breath of our nation’s stretch between two great oceans, and the breath of each of us have each and every American with a dream. Every youth with a dream for America? Where have they gone? The mechanics in that poem of Whitman’s the ones that look up at the rising steel bars that become a steel skeleton to this glance of the seagulls off the Hudson. Oh, and I have more oddly specific dreams of America enterprise remembrances and distinctly American ambitions. remembrances of the great railroads across the hinterlands that gave birth to Peoria has two songs and the great libraries of this nation. I remember the heartbeat of turn of the century Chicago exploding along Lake Michigan, and the spirit of its contemporary in New York City, whom both Welcome my ancestors from Eastern European prosecutions. And to me American Enterprise is the hope and the opportunity that our nation was willing to learn from, and the round, resounding investment in the lives of the Jewish immigrants streaming into the New York’s the Chicago’s, the traverse cities and the van Berens that became me. And among these remembrances of the ambitions of Nelson Rockefeller, but the stark reality of Theodore Roosevelt, the ambitions of American Enterprise, but the realization of his failures
Jeremi Suri 3:57
as a lot in that poem, Zachary, what what is it about?
Zachary Suri 4:00
My form was really about the promise and the hope that is created by this idea of American Enterprise, but also about how we need to learn to to promote the growth of enterprise, but also to manage it and regulate and keep it in check.
Jeremi Suri 4:18
Well, that that seems like a good place to turn to Bob.
Robert Campbell 4:22
I mean, if I could interrupt him exactly. I mean, what a provocative and insightful point. I’ve listened to some of the other podcasts. And that seems to be a consistent pattern, I think, for you in the podcast. For me, your point was timely Laurin I just last week, finally went to Hamilton and Oh, wonderful. Some of the themes in Hamilton certainly are consistent with the themes of your point. And I would share just on a personal note, given your references to Eastern Europe, probably not widely known. One of my two grandfathers was a Sephardic Jew from Eastern Europe, from Bulgaria who came to the US at the turn of the last century. Wow. Wow, what a little bit of connections there.
Jeremi Suri 5:13
That’s, that’s, that’s some of what you were referring to from our family and others, right? The connection between immigration and entrepreneurship. Right. So So Bob, as a starting point, building on Zachary’s poem, and and on what many have already heard about your illustrious career? Could Could you share some of your experiences in this unique high level role you’ve been in at the intersection between enterprise and the growth of our democracy?
Robert Campbell 5:39
thank thank you, Jeremy.
While not wanting to appear promotional in any way, I have had the good fortune over my professional career of finding myself on a number of occasions working on significant intersection of issues at this intersection of the free enterprise system and democracy. As you know, when I graduated from the Lyndon Johnson School of Public Affairs, where you are so active, had the good fortune of getting into the consulting industry fairly early and spending much of my career there was able to work with a number of leaders at the federal level of government, state level, local level, as well as in the education sector. And how many of my perspectives that we’ll be discussing today are really informed by that range of experience, probably at a particular note relative today, have had several experiences in helping develop and implement government programs that seek to take advantage of commercial capabilities to realize public policy objectives and in turn, have worked on a number of initiatives to bring leading commercial best practice to government. So have, as you said, had the opportunity to straddle those two worlds, since retiring from Deloitte have also had the good fortune of gaining a new perspective from work, the last seven years in the entrepreneurial and startup world have served on several boards of startup companies had have advised a number of startup CEOs and have been a recently active angel investor. And I guess just to reinforce a bit the objectives for today, I have found over that last seven years since retiring from Deloitte, just an extraordinary level of innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity and out in our domestic economy, which has been exciting to be a small part of
Jeremi Suri 8:04
us. And so what what have you seen Bob is some of the best ways to bring that together with our democracy. I mean, you referred to this already, but if you could, if you could give us more, more of a sense of how that creativity serves our democracy, too much of the public discussion of business and government often points to the conflicts.
Robert Campbell 8:27
No, I mean, that’s absolutely so and certainly, it is not all perfect. But I mean, I would share I’m a perpetual optimist. And in my experience, from my perspective, I see a vibrant free enterprise system and our democracy in the US being absolutely directly and integrally connected and mutually supportive when all is working well. I think our free enterprise system operates as well as it does because of the Democratic environment in which its base. And I think our democracy is as strong as it is because of that free enterprise system. Just reaching back to some of the earlier experiences I was describing, have had the good fortune of working with leaders and managers in both sectors, the public sector, the private sector have found extraordinarily talented and hardworking people in both worlds, in spite of what may be from time to time perceptions of one world about the other. The talent is widespread, I suppose what has surprised me a bit is the level of misunderstanding from time to time I see between the representatives of one sector and yes. And the other, I mean, just tried example, but in the business community, you here from time to time leaders asserting we need to run this government like a business and they saw it often. Yes. And I and I suppose if they mean, and I’m not sure what they mean, if they mean, we need to have a data driven approach to decision making, if they mean, we need to have a disciplined approach to performance measurement and performance management up to that point. I would probably agree. With that said, the government is not a business. And I would assert, it’s actually much more challenging to effectively manage in the public sector than it is an article commercial sector. We don’t have any singular measures of performance like profitability, right? In Washington, some would argue we have a board but the board has 535 members. Everything is done in a in a fishbowl and by it very challenging barn just decide that as one example of the opportunities there to kind of increase the understanding on
both sides of the
Jeremi Suri 11:33
public and private sectors around around each other. Right. And and one of the areas you’ve worked on one of so many is the federal debt. You are a major part of the bipartisan federal debt Task Force. And that seems to me to be a perfect example of case study of what you’re talking about here. Right? How does How should one think about managing debt, for example, managing finances, with business knowledge in the public sector?
Robert Campbell 12:01
I’m not sure I was a major part, but I had the good fortune of being a member of the commission and can share a little bit about it. This goes back approximately 10 years ago now but the Bipartisan Policy Center, which was formed by four former Senate Majority leaders to republican to democrat to take on big tough policy issues, yes, created a debt Task Force. It went under the name the Domenici Redland commission for former Senate Finance Chairman Pete Drummond Domenici, and the first Congressional Budget Office leader, Dr. Alice Reverend, who sadly, I mean, just to acknowledge it passed away several weeks ago, but extraordinary leaders. It was comprised of business leaders, and it was comprised of several former senators, governors and Cabinet members. And it was focusing on this daunting issue of our growing debt and the degree of deficit spending. And certainly, economists would disagree as to precisely what the right metrics and targets should be. But I think there is widespread agreement that our current spending patterns as a country and acid democracy are not sustainable. I think there are some valuable lessons to learn from the work of that commission. From first, taking a very clear, defined targeted objective, as the foundation for all decision making the face of the Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force, it was stabilizing federal debt at the then percent of federal GDP. Although the debt could grow, had to derive a plan that would not have debt grow faster than GDP growth, right makes sense. And then secondly, was a strong commitment to take a data driven approach to the analysis. But this group, not to sound promotion. This group to my knowledge is the only bipartisan group that has developed unanimously a plan, which hadn’t been implemented would have accomplished that objective. It obviously hit the buzzsaw of Washington politics, and sadly, only small elements of the plan have been implemented up to now. But I believe it is still a strong set of guidelines the country can and should follow relative to
managing our debt and debt.
Jeremi Suri 14:57
And this sounds like a perfect example. But you were talking about before Bob, where people with business knowledge, were able to bring that together with those, like the chairs of the committee, who had extensive public governance experience and find a workable solution that would look different from what one would have in a traditional privately held business. But he had brought those skills to bear right. Oh,
Robert Campbell 15:19
no, absolutely. I mean, it was highly collaborative process ran over almost a year. I mean, it. It required everyone, if you will to leave their head at the door. Yes, yes. And to try to focus on what was right for the country as a whole. But this, this group did just back just that night, even today would command that report as a valuable resource around this daunting issue. We will link it on our website so people can can read it. Zachary, you had a question?
Zachary Suri 15:53
Yeah. So sort of about the interaction between government and business? How have How have businesses and what do you see businesses as their role as advocates as advocating for certain issues, especially now? Is there more and more expected to take stands on certain political issues that that divide people and are very controversial? Great question.
Robert Campbell 16:20
Good question. I mean, certainly historically, in our democracy, and, Jeremy, your political story, you could probably speak to this better than I but certainly historically have seen businesses probably over the past 200 years, advocate public policy positions, which enable their business their business objectives, free trade being one free trade would be a very, very good example. tax policy or in some instances would be a good example. And I think that that is fair and proper, if done within the rules and regulations for asserting one’s one’s views. Probably in the last several decades, we have seen Zachary an evolution of interest in corporate social responsibility, yes, and responsible corporate actions relative to broader domestic issues. Interesting at my undergraduate thesis was in 1971, was entitled emerging trends in US corporate social respond to you are ahead of
Unknown Speaker 17:55
Robert Campbell 17:56
I just been around for a while Lloyd say even today, I’m not struck that it is a mature evolution. And and it varies a fair amount by industry fact sector varies by company, but do see some very provocative and impressive action to number of private organizations are taking to try to support the public good. I mean, I certainly site my long time for firm Deloitte, for some of the good work it does in that domain.
Jeremi Suri 18:33
And one area I know you’ve worked on and enjoyed talking about his efforts in the third world and development, I know you spend a lot of time traveling in this area. And you’ve worked a lot with the east west Institute, of course, as we mentioned, that is filled with both public and private sector. Wise men and women who spend a lot of time advocating for economic development. Do you see that as as as part of corporate social responsibility?
Robert Campbell 19:02
I think it can be, at least for certain of the members. I mean, that involvement is one of the more exciting areas that I have the good fortune being involved in and be glad to share a little bit about please get a please, please, if you’d like. East West Institute is a an NGO, approximately 35 years old, focused dogmatically on inner national conflict avoidance, and international conflict resolution. It is truly a global organization. The board is comprised of individuals from all over the world, our offices are in New York, Brussels, and Moscow, and we have business leaders, investors, former government leaders, all actively involved to realize that mission. And I’m honored to be part of it, really two major threads to the work. And I know Jeremy, we’ve spent a fair amount of time on some of these issues in the past, together and your contributions have been invaluable. But at the East West Institute, we work to anticipate emerging issues that can lead to international conflict and develop thoughtful policy recommendations for international agreements. I’d say cyber security, you’re probably a pretty good example of how we got ahead of the curve on some of the international agreements that needed to be in place on that front. The second area we focused, perhaps even more provocative would be what’s called track to diplomacy, which is business and nonprofit led behind the scenes diplomatic support activities, in the interest of building relations internationally, building trust levels internationally. One, one of the initiatives of that nature I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in would be the try party talk series where for the last decade annually, we have gotten senior representatives of the China Communist Party to us republican party and us democratic party together in one room for two to day facilitate dialogue. That’s great. And we going to agree on everything? Of course not. But does it build a level of relationship level of understanding of where we agree and don’t agree that hopefully has the effect of reducing the the prospect for conflict, I find just exceptionally meaningful to be part of
Jeremi Suri 22:08
and and I think it’s worth underlining how valuable it is to have these ongoing dialogues, especially with societies where we often have differences politically, because those dialogues provide channels for communication. And in some cases, crisis avoidance, which I think as a historian turns out to be one of the most important elements of an effective foreign policy.
Robert Campbell 22:29
Yeah, I mean, just just reinforce that we’ve also been hosting for some years, military military talks between retired admirals and generals from China and the US. Up until we did that, a number of them would say they would not have even known who to call All right, for what issue if a potential conflict was emerging. So just developing that family foundational level of understanding, hopefully all? And,
Jeremi Suri 23:03
Bob, if I might ask on that point, you know, in a moment, when we’re thinking back on the history of many difficult experiences between the US and China and other societies, how do you because I know you think deeply about this, how do you make sure that these relationships are promoting positive developments between societies and not encouraging bad behavior and other societies?
Robert Campbell 23:30
Certainly, at least relative to the activities of the East West Institute, which I’m closest to our activities are so integrally tied to the mission of conflict avoidance and conflict resolution that it would be hard to comp contemplate, right. Right behaviors that would not be right, Rhian reinforcing of that. I mean, I think there are some ACC approaches and methods that tend to be reinforcing it, certainly. working well ahead of discussions to agree on. agenda has to agree on what’s inbound and writes out of bounds, it is committing to behave in a forthright, honest, ethical manner, it is agreeing to put our hats at the door relative to whatever right country our special interest we would otherwise represent. And in many instances, it also place can’t such discussions can be enhanced by placing some restrictions on external communication. Yes, contemporaneous communications about them. Yes.
Keep the discussion in the room. Right. Right. And and I was just going to say,
Jeremi Suri 25:09
what I think is important for many to understand is that just as we presume that professional public representatives will operate with a code of ethics and morals, you in the business community to the top professionals there have a very strict code of ethics and morals. And that’s what what allows productive discussions, even with those who might otherwise try to take advantage of those discussions to promote bad behavior that you would not allow that to be within bounds,
Robert Campbell 25:36
not me. Absolutely,
Zachary Suri 25:38
exactly. I we talked a lot about the the honor and ethics of business, but also about what government can learn from business. But what do you think business can learn from government? What is the role of you see of government regulation has been business, especially when that honor and that ethics is isn’t upheld by certain out by certain actors in business?
Robert Campbell 26:08
Well, as I observed, earlier, I have seen some limitations of understanding at a detailed operational and policy level of each sector, about the other may not be hitting your question exactly on point, Zachary. But I would certainly encourage
business leaders to
focus on and understand at a detail level, the policies, rules, regulations, that are in place, these are the whatever industry sector they’re operating, they’re operating in, and would encourage business leaders, as many do to get engaged in their communities get invade gauged in the political process, whatever their political persuasions may be, and do their part to contribute to the effective functioning of our democracy.
Jeremi Suri 27:21
I think, again, we’re back to dialogue and coordination, in a way that right was was pioneered by some of the business leaders of the early 20th century that Zachary mentioned in this poem. Bob, as you know, we’d like to close our podcast by talking about pathways for especially for young people. And as you and I have discussed, and you’ve also advised and mentored so many of my students, and you’re a wonderful mentor, I’m going to keep bringing mentors to you and, and you know, I pay you so highly with maybe a lunch every once in
Unknown Speaker 27:52
a while. But
Jeremi Suri 27:56
what what is the advice and guidance based on your experience that you would give to listeners out there who care deeply about public policy issues, like let’s say the environment, or inequality, but also at the same time, want to go into business, in part because they want to be renumeration for their activities, but also recognize the innovation that comes in the business sector, many of my students is, you know, are interested in the startup world. But they’re also deeply, deeply committed as you are to some of these public policy issues about equality and environmental sustainability. How would you advise them to go forward in their careers bringing these two worlds together?
Robert Campbell 28:39
Let me Well, don’t want to be presumptuous with my advice. But let me distinguish some counsel to current students. Separate separately from some counsel to those who are already in the workforce, the public or private sector, I think far, current students would make several recommendations, I think,
would be to
some basics, whatever one’s major, whatever one’s passion, develop some basic skills and understanding of areas such as technology, management, accounting, and financial management, which almost what ever you elect to do are foundational skills that will help you be more effective. Okay. I think for students, I would certainly encourage individuals to identify fight an issue their pet passionate about, but beyond just being passionate, become an expert around the issue, really understand the points of view out in market on the issue, understand the policy rules and regulations behind whatever the issue may be, and even in school, make yourself an expert on some short, sure. And then I’d also encourage probably obvious, but would encourage those in school to volunteer, get involved in their communities get involved in worthy local nonprofits. I mean, it’s a way to make a big difference early in one’s career way to learn. But also, I think we’ll find is a lot of fun practice where I right. I think for those are ready, the workplace. I guess part of my accounts would be similar, I would certainly encourage those listening to seek out issues they are passionate about, and really study and become an expert on those issues, beyond just the emotional aspects, quality issues, of course, would also encourage those already in the workplace, as I earlier counsel students to get involved in nonprofits to do volunteer work to try to do one spark to make a difference on issues that matter to one’s individually. And then I guess reflecting back on an earlier observation I made I didn’t would if whether you’re working in the public or private sectors, I’d encourage you to make a commitment to do more to understand how to things work in the other side, yes, influencing government. Take some effort to understand how capital markets work, how business work, how to read a balance sheet. And if if once in business, certainly take some effort, as I’d mentioned in passing earlier, to better understand the national and state policies and regulations that affect whatever sector you happen to be operating it and to show respect for the other side not to not to treat the other sector as the enemy.
Jeremi Suri 32:35
Absolutely. Right. Which is too common in our dialogue today. Right.
Robert Campbell 32:39
Jeremi Suri 32:40
So So, Zachary, you, you’ve been drawn in your political activism to figures in the public sector and the private sector, who are very committed to dealing with inequality and homelessness and racism and issues that I know you’re very concerned about. Do you? What Bob is talking about here and his experiences and his advice? Is this something that resonates with young people who have your political commitments?
Zachary Suri 33:09
Well, I do think that there’s a lot of disenchantment with the idea of American business. And I think that’s really, because we’ve seen a over the past, like 10 years or so we’ve seen a real Um, I think, at least, at least outwardly, we’ve seen a real dissatisfaction with the way that that large businesses have conducted themselves. And I think that’s a real problem. And I do think that part of that we that solve is what we talked about earlier, with businesses taking more of a social responsibility, and reaching out and talking about why it’s important what they do, but also being responsible for their communities and working in their communities. And I think that that’s something that businesses need to work on. But I also think that they’re still in large. There are a large number of students who see business and are entrepreneurship as an opportunity, especially when it comes to things like technology, and things like that,
Jeremi Suri 34:05
right. And that that can be harnessed for the public good. Bob, I think you have done such a great job, obviously, in your career. But in the short time, we’ve been able to talk this morning, really, in laying out some of the ways in which the business community and the public sector community can really work together. And I think, encouraging all of us to think about not demonizing, but instead, better understanding and collaborating. And that has always been essential to our history, and it will be essential to the future growth of our democracy. So thank you, Bob, for sharing your time with us insights
Robert Campbell 34:42
pleasure to spend time with both of you and exciting topic.
Jeremi Suri 34:45
Absolutely. Zachary. Thank you, as always for your poem. Thank you for listening to our episode of This is Democracy.
Unknown Speaker 35:00
podcast is produced by the liberal arts development studio and the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. The music in this episode was written and recorded by Harrison lumpy, and you can find his music at Harrison lemke.com.
Unknown Speaker 35:13
subscribe and stay tuned for a new episode every Thursday featuring new perspectives on democracy
Transcribed by https://otter.ai