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Good Corporate Citizenship Sustains Our Society Through Changing Times

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The sluggish global economy -- accompanied by an intensified scrutiny of both corporate behavior and government action -- has created a challenging environment for the private and public sectors. Public institutions have been faced with punishing demands, diminishing resources, and heightened requirements for efficiency and effectiveness. Meanwhile, many in the private sector have had to develop new strategies to sustain their bottom lines in the face of global competition. Certainly, some actions by entities in both sectors are deserving of criticism. But through it all, one collaborative strategy has enabled governments to implement smarter solutions to their most pressing problems, and the best companies to build and preserve both their reputations and their revenues: good corporate citizenship.

Take a look at Corporate Responsibility Magazine's recently-released "100 Best Corporate Citizens" list, and you'll see a Who's Who of companies that are respected for both their business models and their strong commitments to their communities. At IBM, we have always been proud of our longstanding Culture of Service. And as we enter our second century, we are gratified to be ranked No. 2 in corporate citizenship out of 1,000 companies evaluated - making IBM the only company to achieve a Top 5 rating in each of the last four years of the survey.

Society's views can change over time, including the public's perception of corporations. You may remember the advertisements for the E.F. Hutton brokerage firm that ended with "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen" - as if advice on any topic by a private company was meritorious. In many ways, that advertisement reflected the general sentiment of the times, as people began to believe that privatization was the best approach to running everything from schools to prisons. Indeed, many services could benefit from the accountability inherent in a profit-making enterprise. But while private-sector methodologies can be effective, private sector management is not necessarily appropriate for all public or civic endeavors.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, government was the solution - not the problem. President Roosevelt's creation of Social Security (at the urging of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins) was a positive response to a social crisis, and Americans recognized it as such. Our government's response to the September 11 attacks was also praised, although some subsequently criticized the allocation of victim assistance and the compromising of privacy and civil rights protections.

The bottom line is that the creation and maintenance of a civil society is a process, not a result. Private-sector behavior is neither beyond reproach nor beyond the pale. Government is neither always the problem nor always the solution. Nothing is absolute except our desire to live peacefully and productively in the America that de Tocqueville found so compelling as a shining example of responsible civic activity.

Government, business and the community are most effective when working together. Social Security was proposed by a President, enacted by Congress, and enabled by a public-private partnership with IBM - which developed the government's accounting system. Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, and acts of war like the September 11 attacks require coordinated responses as all sectors of our society - working together.

Perhaps the most urgent need for public-private collaboration involves connecting education to jobs -- both to strengthen our nation's economy, and to ensure our long term global competitiveness. As we examine and reshape the model for career and technical education in America's schools, it is essential for us to form close partnerships between the public and private sectors. The reasons for this are self-evident, for it is the private sector that will hire most of America's graduates. But for those graduates to be qualified for the opportunities that await them, they must emerge from education and training programs that are academically rigorous and relevant to industry. Educators can provide the academic rigor, but industry must work with the public sector to help ensure that school curricula will prepare graduates for successful careers.

When it comes to evaluating the performance of public and private entities, it's easy to sit back and criticize. It's much harder, however, to roll up one's sleeves and develop meaningful solutions that leverage the strengths of all stakeholders. Far from being an afterthought, corporate citizenship must form part of the foundation of how a company interacts with the governments and communities it serves.