We Need to Promote Public Service in Government

One of the unfortunate impacts of the conservative war on the U.S. government is a decline in the ethos of public service. Nevertheless, dedication to public service survives despite the sustained attacks that started over three decades ago under Ronald Reagan and continues in the face of the Tea Party's assaults. Its survival is a small miracle, but one I am deeply grateful for. I understand, and have some sympathy for, the attack on big, lumbering federal bureaucracies. The arrogance and idiocy of these institutions cannot and should not be denied. But instead of reforming ossified federal agencies and combatting the entrenched interests that have lobbied them into paralysis, Americans have been convinced to give up on having a functioning federal government. A sophisticated, competent government would be a real asset as we face the challenges presented by globalization and the need for environmental sustainability. Too bad we don't have one.

One of my jobs at Columbia University is to teach in SIPA, our university's global public policy school. As I advise students on career issues, most are targeting non-profit and private organizations, and only about one-third are heading toward government. Of those interested in government, fewer and fewer are applying for positions in the U.S. federal government. This is unfortunately a rational response to a deeply irrational situation.

There should be a generational shift underway in our federal government. While Baby Boomer civil servants are approaching and passing retirement age, the federal government is doing very little to recruit the top students graduating from American universities. In times past, the Presidential Management Internship Program--renamed the Presidential Management Fellowship program a few years back--played a key role in recruiting the "best and the brightest". In the past several years, this program has become a sad joke, with many highly qualified Fellows unable to secure government jobs. Writing in Government Executive Magazine this past February, Eric Katz observed that according to the Office of Personnel Management, "More than two-thirds of the 2013 finalists in the Presidential Management Fellows Program have not received jobs yet in the federal government... just 213 of 668 finalists in 2013 have received jobs so far." In the old days, finalists would weigh multiple offers from several agencies. These days, most qualified fellows receive no offers at all.

This is a program that is designed to recruit the top graduates of U.S. graduate programs and involves a lengthy and competitive selection process. Today under the pathetic leadership of the Obama Administration's Office of Personnel Management, this program is in a shameful state of collapse. Talented, eager young applicants are being deceived by a process that is only shadow of its former self. This serves to reinforce the perception that trying to work for the government in Washington is a fool's errand.

Even without OPM's mismanagement of the Fellows program, prospective public servants face a difficult road. Most American governments continue to shrink. This has been particularly true at the federal and local level since the start of the Great Recession. The short-lived federal stimulus program provided some relief, but for the most part, U.S. government continues to cut employees. According to Governing Magazine's reporting of U.S. Census data, total government employment in the United States has declined from 22,579,000 in January of 2009 to 21,851,000 in February 2014. Over the past five years, the federal government has shrunk from 2,786,000 to 2,717,000, state government dropped from 5,206,000 to 5,076,000, and local government has been reduced from 14,587,000 to 14,058,000. Total government employment is down 728,000; in the past five years the federal government lost 69,000 positions; the number of state government employees dropped by 130,000 and local government lost 529,000 employees.

As Paul Light illustrates in his important work, The True Size of Government, some of these losses are merely shifts to outsourced jobs with government contractors. This is especially true at the federal level. Unfortunately, most of the real work of government takes place at the local level where the staff cuts are real and painful. Much of the work of local government, such as picking up the garbage and teaching students in public schools, must grow in proportion to population. In 2010, there were about 308,746,000 people in the U.S. In 2013, this had grown to about 316,129,000. Particularly at the local level, population growth alone should stimulate some growth in the size of government. While technology and efficiency can improve productivity, fewer teachers will nearly always translate to larger size classes.

Despite this negative outlook, the students I teach and those who apply to our schools have a deep desire to serve the public. Writing in Governing Magazine this past October, Mike Maciag said that:

...interest in public affairs education is strong. Some might be surprised to learn it's even faring better than most other degree fields. A study published by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) last month indicates first-time graduate enrollment for "public administration and services" climbed 5 percent in 2012 and has increased 3.6 percent on average over the previous five years. That's comparable to recent growth for new engineering students. It also outpaces business degree enrollment, which rose 4 percent last year and an average of 2.8 percent over the past five years.

While graduate enrollment in computer and health sciences is growing at twice the size of public administration, it is clear that a growing number of young people are interested in a career in public service.

Even when government positions are available however, the hiring process is often a nightmare. In order to prevent corruption and patronage, government hiring processes can be incredibly formal and time-consuming. Nevertheless, many of my students continue to "ask what they can do for their country". Their sense of mission and idealism is desperately needed in Washington and many state capitals where the revolving door of money and influence has replaced public service with "pay for play".

American governments, like our private and nonprofit organizations, are under enormous pressure to become more effective and efficient. In a global economy, the cost of government is part of the cost of doing business in any given location. While some companies are more mobile than others, many can easily move and will do so to gain a cost advantage over their competitors. When governments fail to recruit talented, well-trained recent recipients of graduate degrees, they impair their ability to improve and keep up with demands for improved government performance.

The work that government does is important and can make a real difference in a community's quality of life. Recently, The Wall Street Journal's Keith Williams wrote a brief "signs of spring" piece about New York City Parks manager Gus Menocal and his colleagues. Williams observed that:

Each year, Mr. Menocal and his team of six plumbers spend the period between St. Patrick's Day and Memorial Day reviving the fountains and other waterworks in all of the municipal parks in the borough of Queens. They and the rest of the 33 handymen in the department's technical services division fan across the city each spring to turn on mains serving restrooms, misting stations, heating systems and 3,100 drinking fountains. (They then reverse course starting around Columbus Day each year, winterizing the entire network.)

A simple, but important routine function of government that, once completed, immediately improves the quality of life for joggers, children, and park visitors of many ages, and even species ("say thanks for the drink, Fido"). Most of us do not have the resources or desire to live in gated communities. Our best communities are open, diverse, complex and supported by public services. The people who manage and operate those public services are public servants. In my view, they should be nurtured, trained, motivated and encouraged.