Along with several hundred others from the maritime industry, I attended a symposium this week organized by the U.S. Maritime Administration to lay the groundwork for developing a long-awaited, much-overdue national maritime strategy.

Yes, we’ve heard similar rumblings in the past. However, this three-day event was actually quite remarkable. Not because several hundred leaders of private industry devoted three work days to speeches and workshops, but because Marad, often criticized for being inactive and unresponsive, seems to be striking out on a new path.

Who would ever think that Marad, which always seems to get the short end of the budget and PR stick within the Transportation Department, would be acting like a private business more than a public bureaucracy?

From the start, the symposium’s organization was modeled after a page from corporate America, or perhaps an exercise at one of the country’s top business schools. Participants were seated at tables in the airy atrium of DOT’s new headquarters near the Navy Yard in an up-and-coming neighborhood of southeast Washington.

After introductory remarks by DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, Acting Marad Administrator Paul “Chip” Jaenichen and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., about the importance of the maritime industry and the decline of the U.S. commercial fleet, a “meeting facilitator” took over. In a cheery, booming voice, she scrambled up the tables, encouraging people to move from the comfort zone of people they knew and sit with new faces. Then she got down to business. Each table was tasked with coming up with a list justifying the need for a strong U.S.-flag fleet.

At my table, I had an executive from ConocoPhilips, a Coast Guard official who was spending time working with the House Coast Guard subcommittee, and a business analyst with Seacor Holdings. They all brought different perspectives and ideas to the discussion, as did people at the other 40 or so tables. The facilitator floated around the room and coaxed the best ideas out of the crowd until we had the early makings of a strategy plan for the future of the merchant fleet.

It was a very successful exercise, democratic, laden with ideas, and offered a platform for discussion, dialogue and prioritization in a way I’ve never seen before from a government agency engaging with the private sector. Participants then fanned out into five breakout sessions that covered new cargo opportunities, increasing competitiveness, tax regulations, training and education and international agreements. The same formula was used in which small groups were asked to identify problems and come up with solutions.

“This is the type of thing we do as a company,” Michael Roberts, senior vice president and legislative counsel at Crowley Maritime Corp., told the gathering. “We get together and talk about a common vision, set goals and what actions we’ll take to achieve this vision. Getting public input on a strategy is extremely important and we congratulate [Marad] for doing it.”

Marad now has the task of sifting through all these ideas, concerns, problems and proposed solutions and composing a comprehensive strategy that speaks to a highly diverse and scattered industry. Officials expect to hit the road and take the discussion to other areas of the U.S. in the months ahead. The whole process could very well take the rest of 2014, if not beyond.

Kudos to Acting Administrator Jaenichen, who is on his way to being confirmed to the full title, for taking the helm on this project and pushing it through the bureaucratic weeds in Washington.

The heavy lifting has just begun. It was clear from the meeting that maritime leaders have been waiting for this type of dialogue for years, impatient for the opportunity to be asked for their opinions. And they have been waiting for decades to get some respect, recognition and attention to what they do, day-in and day-out, to move commerce in and out of the country and keep the economy humming. They are hungry for a national policy that sets a direction for their industry’s future and the government’s commitment to it.

As Donald Marcus, president of Masters, Mates & Pilots union said, the maritime community is looking for “deeds not words,” expecting this initiative to lead to a significant policy shift. He said mariners want to work in vibrant industry that will leave a legacy for future mariners, and not be “the last man standing on a sinking industry.”

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.