Ten years ago this week, Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California and he appointed me to be the Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. Until then, neither of us had given serious thought to serving in government, but the experience changed our lives and, although you may not know it, changed yours too.
In 2003, Schwarzenegger was best known for bodybuilding, action movies, and driving Hummers, but even before he was elected, he was equally serious about environmental protection and after school programs for at-risk kids. These two issues may seem unrelated, but Schwarzenegger saw kids in his "After School Allstars" sports programs wheezing from polluted air and heard how those living low-income neighborhoods were often drinking contaminated water and living near dilapidated parks or "brownfield" sites.
So as governor, he tackled air pollution by focusing on green energy and cleaner cars. He developed policies that addressed climate change, ocean protection, and preserved hundreds of thousands of acres of wild lands and open spaces. But all of Schwarzenegger's green accomplishments had two fundamental things in common.
First, they were practical solutions that had measurable economic benefit in equal measure to their environmental improvements. For example, our Million Solar Roofs Initiative has helped homeowners and businesses install nearly two gigawatts of new clean energy installations, created 44,000 new jobs statewide, and helped construction businesses to keep working amidst the worse homebuilding recession in state history.
Air pollution was tackled with a similar win-win approach.From 2005 to 2011, for example, harmful emissions at California ports plunged over 70% while container volumes increased 6% thanks to policies such as reducing vessel speeds, introducing low-sulfur fuels, and incentivizing old engine retrofits of cargo handling equipment and locomotives. A similar program helped ordinary motorists too, by restructuring the annual vehicle inspection program and buying the "gross polluters" to scrap them. The net result was consumers saved unnecessary fees, air quality improved, and funds were made available to truckers to replace dirty old engines with new clean-burning natural gas models.
The second thing that these innovative programs all had in common was that they came from dedicated, hard-working government employees. Instead of seeing government workers as obstacles to progress, we made them our partners by asking for their ideas and giving them the tools to implement the best ones. The results speak for themselves. In a time when government workers are being furloughed or stereotyped as lazy bureaucrats, our experience in California (and with counterparts in other states, cities, and Washington DC) paints a very different picture.
(Read more: Clean energy: Don't believe the shakeout hype)
Rank-and-file program staff, scientists, administrators, IT experts, maintenance workers, security guards, and every other category of government employee you can imagine worked long hours under challenging conditions and accomplished extraordinary results in the brief seven years we were in office. The California governor also appoints 6,000 ordinary citizens to work with those civil servants, taking jobs in his cabinet, staff, and on various boards or commissions. All of those people come from other walks of life and typically go home again when the next administration arrives, sacrificing time with families and more lucrative careers elsewhere in exchange for the chance to make a difference.
So how did all of this change your life? Many of the programs that started in California have been adopted nationally and even by other countries, measurably improving public health, saving money for consumers, and creating new businesses and sustainable jobs.
If that sounds like a worthwhile return on your tax dollars invested, let's make this Hug a Government Worker Day and say thanks. Or better yet, let's show our appreciation by urging Congress to put those dedicated public servants back to work and let them continue to improve our lives and our nation.
—Terry Tamminen is the former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and president of Seventh Generation Advisors, an operating partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors. He's the author of "Cracking the Carbon Code: The Key to Sustainable Profits in the New Economy."