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Make it Easier to Say "Yes" to Social Change in Government

September always brings a burst of hope for the public service. Students show up at universities ready to learn, the federal fiscal year is about to begin, agencies are ready to hire, and the latest surveys of federal employees arrive. I know our students here at the Wagner School are excited and ready to learn, and hear the same from other professional schools around the country.

Students are highly motivated to make a difference with their lives these days, in no small part because they see the need to change the world. They know that the baby boom generation is moving toward retirement with unfinished business. The generation has created more problems than it has solved, and continues to do so. Social security and Medicare are straining under increased pay-outs, global warming seems to be accelerating, the number of poor Americans increases every day, and hunger, illiteracy, and inequality are ever present.

They also see plenty of reason to act. They may be worried about the economy and tuition, and wonder what they need to learn and will have to carry in debt to have a life of public purpose. But they are excited about the chance to do something worthwhile. Yes, some are driven by hoped-for profits from the dwindling number of high paying jobs, but most have arrived on campus with a deep commitment to something bigger than themselves. They want to change the world.

There is cause for hope as young Americans move toward their lives of service. The federal government is slowly but surely improving its hiring process, customer service ratings are up, and there are spots of good news in the latest federal human capital survey. New funders such as the Robertson Foundation for Government are helping students pay the ever-rising tuitions that sometimes drive them away from federal service; the Office of Management and Budget continues to push for long-overdue improvements in the hiring process as it awaits the arrival of its talented new director, Jack Lew; and students are willing to give up higher salaries in the private sector to pursue high-impact careers in government and the nonprofit sector.

Even though most state and local governments will be in cut back mode for years, there is no doubt that the federal government has meaningful work for many of these students. Yes again, the public may be increasingly angry about big government, the Tea Party has put incumbents on notice that it is time for pay and hiring freezes across the federal hierarchy, and the cascade of meltdowns continues at agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration.

But these challenges to public service merely heighten the motivation to engage. Students who want to make a difference can find plenty of places where their energies are desperately needed. The federal government is mostly hiring where talent is needed most, meaning on the front lines where goods and services are delivered.

Alas, the federal government does not make it easy for anyone to say yes. The presidential appointments process is a mess, the Senior Executive Service is due for an overhaul, lateral hiring remains the exception to the rule, and too many federal employees believe the system is tilted against performance.

Federal employees may be satisfied with their jobs, and know how their jobs contribute to the government's mission. But their complaints about the lack of communication within and across their agencies, the difficulty attracting talented co-workers, the meager rewards for performance and innovation, and the deeply troubling bias in the pay and promotion process send exactly the wrong message to motivated young people. Performance pay is on life support, and no one seems willing to open a conversation about how to create an effective disciplinary process in a hyper-inflated employee appraisal system.

Young Americans are not saying "show us the money" so much as "show us the impact." But just about the last people they should ask about federal jobs are the front line employees who struggle everyday to get the resources needed to make a difference. The big talk on campus these days is social entrepreneurship and change. But for the Obama administration's Social Innovation Fund, which has now embraced much greater transparency in its grant making process, social entrepreneurship and change are often seen as incompatible with federal service.

Nevertheless, this is a hopeful moment as the war in Iraq winds down, the oil spill has been contained, and Congress is actually finalizing work to restore the Food and Drug Administration to its once proud standing as a bulwark of safety. Perhaps this hopefulness will spill over to other long-standing problems. As I argued last week, Congress has never been particularly interested in government reform, but the new year may yet bring the tough decisions needed to give young Americans confidence as they begin choosing courses and defining their majors. We should make it easier for them to say "yes" to making a difference in the federal ranks.

Read more from Paul Light

Why Democrats are scared of government reform

Stonewalling the Social Innovation Fund

By Paul Light

 |  September 1, 2010; 8:47 AM ET |  Category:  Change management , Culture , Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Why Democrats are scared of government reform | Next: How to teach excellence in public service


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The comments posted here display the full range of vicious, nasty, spiteful and ignorant opinions that greet anyone doing public service. The comment about "state school bachelor's degrees" is simply abusive as well as untrue. The Federal employees in my extended family (not me) have Ph.Ds, MDs, JDs and and other advanced degrees from top universities both state and private.
I work daily with highly talented public servants who work to keep you safe and healthy.
Both the private sector and the government can create "wealth". More importantly in many cases only the government can protect wealth health and safety from attacks by enemies both foreign and domestic.

Posted by: Vince5 | September 7, 2010 11:07 AM

The government is way too big. Time for Feds to retire, resign, or be let go. Advice to new people thinking of a Federal job: think of something else!

Posted by: jy151310 | September 5, 2010 3:32 PM

Oh this article and the comments make this public service thing sound -so- attractive. It's a good thing that it's so hard to get a job that sucks as badly as being a government worker does.

Posted by: Nymous | September 4, 2010 5:53 PM

I think everyone should work for the government. GOOD pay, great benefits, job security. Wait, they tried that in Russia, it did't work.
Somebody needs to produce wealth, the PRIVATE SECTOR.

Posted by: blhfish | September 4, 2010 12:00 PM

Is the author of this article insane? We need to slash the Fed workforce by ~70%. Does he understand the term, "cost center"?

Posted by: illogicbuster | September 4, 2010 7:25 AM

What few seem to want to confront head-on is the need to fire massive numbers of bureaucrats, and eliminate several government departments outright.

There'd be plenty more productivity in government after that.

For starters, why not set as national policy a "rationing" of public sector jobs to no more than 30 per cent of the national workforce?

Posted by: tacheronb | September 4, 2010 12:59 AM

refraining from laughter at the comment about lower salaries. except for the (rare) top echelons of big law and Wall Street, the feds offer a much richer package of pay, benefits and retention prospects. feds are eight times less likely to leave their posts than a private sector worker.
light workloads, lavish leave time and short work days (vs. private sector) make these plums a coast.
to imply otherwise is wrong. plenty of people in the federal system with 20, 30 and more years careers, at six figures now, working on state school bachelor's degrees. their packages have no comparison in the real world, where graduate and professional degrees are the norm and a 55-hour work week (or more) is standard.
get real.

Posted by: FloridaChick | September 3, 2010 8:51 PM

There are several million feds on the payroll and the vast majority are good workers with valuable skills and assets to the nation. If the federal government has been able to hire high caliber people like this over the past 30-40 years, maybe the hiring system is not as broken as Dr. Light claims. Yes it weeds out the gadflies and those who lack persistence. But if these "best and brightest" students are so easily intimidated by the federal hiring process, it is doubtful they would be able to deal very effectively with the bureaucracy if they were hired. Perhaps everyone would be better served if they seek employment in less challenging environments, like academia.

I am also amused by individuals who describe the ordeal of applying to "dozens" of jobs over the course of months or years. When I was out of work, I set (and met) a goal of 20 quality job applications per day. By the end of the first week, I had applied for over 130 jobs. I was not unemployed long and have a very good job with a federal agency where I am honored to serve.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | September 3, 2010 7:10 PM

"Students who want to make a difference can find plenty of places where their energies are desperately needed."

I just finished my MPA and would love to work for the federal government. Over the past several months I've applied to dozens of jobs without success, which I can understand given the economy and my lack of previous federal work experience.

What frustrates me is the process. It can take three to four months before I hear that I haven't made the first cut. Despite my master's degree, skills and a couple years of professional work experience, I apply to secretary positions and am told the agency has "not reviewed my qualifications due to the abundance of higher ranking candidates." I met a recruiter from one agency who actually told me I should get a job driving trucks for a smaller agency for 90 days before applying to his because my application probably wouldn't be looked at if I wasn't already a federal employee.

I keep trying because I am one of those enthusiastic, eager young people more interested in making a difference than making money. But I have to say, I don't feel wanted.

Posted by: journalista55 | September 3, 2010 12:31 PM

SES? Are you kidding? This pieces of garbage do nothing but build little empires based upon the fact they got hired, not their ability to lead and make a difference. I saw one SES get a 30k award even though she was so poor the backlog of disability actions under her watch shot through the roof and regardless of the amount of "entitled" overtime, the numbers never moved downwards.

Posted by: zendrell | September 3, 2010 12:10 PM

Hmm! My experience with the young workers coming in - Most have taken so much time off work none have any annual leave or sick leave. They expect daily rewards just for showing up - got too many trophies as kids for coming in second. Work is sub-par.

Posted by: Govt | September 3, 2010 9:04 AM

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