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Insights: Politics

Public Service Decades of government-bashing by politicians and the media are reaping a dangerous harvest
Joseph S. Nye
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

(continued from page 1)

The challenge for President Bush is twofold. He must launch vigorous efforts to recruit high-caliber employees into the government he oversees. To do so, he must reassess the personnel system so our federal enterprise can offer enthusiastic youth meaningful and rewarding jobs. If working for the federal government is synonymous with dead-end bureaucratic jobs, then our country will forgo the service of some of the most gifted of America's younger generation.

The president also must find ways to inspire our youth into embracing public service. Too many years have passed since the young people in America have heard the kind of rhetoric from our national leaders that ignites the passion and inspires a dedication to the public good. Recently, my Kennedy School colleagues and I published a book, Why People Don't Trust Government. A major cause was the rhetoric of politicians and the media. Instead of calling for personal sacrifice for the good of society as John F. Kennedy did, our political leaders over the past few decades have devalued public service. Ever since Jimmy Carter's first campaign, politicians have run against government. This devaluation of government service has been reinforced by a more cynical treatment of government in the media and the entertainment industry. According to the Volcker Commission, 60 percent of federal personnel officers believed that the poor public image of federal employees was hindering their ability to recruit the people their agencies needed.

There are those who would argue that our youth are simply apathetic. I do not agree. Members of the new generation are goal-oriented and want to see their actions have an impact. A recent poll conducted by our Institute of Politics showed that 67 percent of 800 college students interviewed engaged in community activism as a way of addressing the important issues facing this country. President Bush needs to find ways to harness this idealistic energy to encourage fresh, energetic volunteers and employees to replace the retirees.

Mobilizing our youth to engage in public service is a critical challenge. It is not solely the responsibility of the president. We who engage in training future leaders must accept our share of responsibility. For too long our schooling has glorified personal success and held up as models alumni who have become overnight successes in our economy. Public policy schools and higher education in general need a partnership with the new president so we can inspire the up-and-coming generations to respond when called to serve.

President Bush would do well to remember what his father said in 1989: "How well the tasks of government are done affects the quality of the lives of all our people." The eighteenth-century words of Thomas Jefferson still ring true today: "There is a debt of service from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounty which nature and fortune have measured to him."

 

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He has served in the State and Defense departments, and has chaired the National Intelligence Council.

 


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