Insights: Politics

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

During the prolonged 2000 election, while the nation stood transfixed by the question of who would head our government, a quiet crisis escaped public attention: Would there be enough qualified government employees to tend to the nation's business?

Currently, about 30 percent of the federal government's 1.6 million employees are eligible to retire, and an additional 20 percent could seek early retirement. By 2005, 45 percent of senior career executives are likely to leave. This pool of retiring employees will include some very talented veterans whose absence could seriously impair the quality of services that government can deliver. The challenge for the Bush administration will be to recruit talented personnel for these slots in a job market in which the private sector far outbids the government, both with salaries and stock options. In the words of Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, the senior Republican on the Committee on Governmental Affairs, "The fact that the federal government does not adequately hire and retain the right people is a root cause" of the difficulties many agencies face.

A growing effort to contract with private and nonprofit entities to deliver government services will relieve some of the pressure to replace retirees. Nonetheless, the federal government will continue to oversee a budget that exceeds $2 trillion annually, because the American people want effective defense, good schools, clean air and safe food -- just to name a few priorities. Ensuring that citizens get the best return on their investment requires a talented federal workforce.

According to a recent report of the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, federal agencies are "poorly equipped to meet challenges of the 21st century because their employees lack the necessary skills in information technology, science, economics and management." The military faces shortages of computer programmers and pilots. The State Department is losing foreign service officers. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has difficulty finding engineers to monitor the safety of nuclear plants. The Forest Service faces difficulty in replacing experienced firefighters. The Immigration and Naturalization Service does not have enough intelligence agents to combat the criminal gangs conducting alien smuggling. Medicare lacks experts needed to evaluate advances in medical technology.

Given the pending exodus of experienced employees, I have been amazed at the lethargic response by the federal government. At Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, we attract some of the nation's brightest students, who come here with an intense interest in public service. Yet it is the private and the nonprofit firms that crowd our job fairs and spend months courting the most gifted students. This pattern is common in all major public policy schools throughout the country, with all reporting that a diminished percentage of their graduates are going into the public sector.

Unfortunately, those students seeking work in government generally have to find those jobs themselves and settle for salaries that are one-third what they could earn in the private sector. Many winners of the prized Presidential Management Intern Program, for example, are offered as little as $36,656 per year to work for the government while private firms offer them more than $100,000 annually, plus signing bonuses.

Some people say not to worry. The private sector is the vital engine of the nation and the source of our prosperity. The right approach to the federal government is to "starve the beast." But private sector disdain for government is shortsighted. Good markets depend on an effective legal and political framework -- just look at Russia for a counterexample. It is true that more services are being contracted out to the private sector, but someone has to draw up and supervise the contracts. Who will protect the taxpayer and assure accountability in our democracy if government cannot attract talent? If we staff government poorly, we all pay the consequences.

The problem is not new, but it has gradually been getting worse. A decade ago, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker headed a national commission on the public service. It concluded that, "Too many of the nation's senior executives are ready to leave government, and not enough of its talented young people are willing to join"; a situation that would "ultimately damage the democratic process itself." Many of the Volcker Commission recommendations remain relevant today.

President George W. Bush should upgrade the Office of Personnel Management and provide better training for federal managers. Salaries should be increased and civil service pay-setting processes made more flexible. A public service scholarship program should be targeted at college students and modeled on appointment to the military service academies. The Presidential Management Intern Program should be expanded from 400 positions per year to 1,000.

President Bush should also work with Congress to appoint a bipartisan commission to rethink our archaic civil service system. It should overhaul compensation, career guidance and the appeals process, among other things. But it should go further. Many young people today see jobs as fluid, a place where you do your best for a few years and then move on. They do not want to march slowly up a bureaucratic ladder in which promotion depends heavily on seniority, time-in grade and veterans' preference rather than merit. We should be exploring ways to encourage such "cross-sector entrepreneurs." Maybe private companies and nonprofit enterprises should encourage their bright young people to spend a few years in government service, and government should adjust regulations to make this possible. Our system has an effective way of moving people in and out of government at high levels. We should explore a way to do it better for younger people.

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.