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
September 1, 2010; 8:47 AM ET |
Save & Share:
Previous: Why Democrats are scared of government reform | Next: How to teach excellence in public service
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Vince5 | September 7, 2010 11:07 AM
Posted by: jy151310 | September 5, 2010 3:32 PM
Posted by: Nymous | September 4, 2010 5:53 PM
Posted by: blhfish | September 4, 2010 12:00 PM
Posted by: illogicbuster | September 4, 2010 7:25 AM
Posted by: tacheronb | September 4, 2010 12:59 AM
Posted by: FloridaChick | September 3, 2010 8:51 PM
Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | September 3, 2010 7:10 PM
Posted by: journalista55 | September 3, 2010 12:31 PM
Posted by: zendrell | September 3, 2010 12:10 PM
Posted by: Govt | September 3, 2010 9:04 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.