Improving the Government Brand
The training grounds for our future public servants, William Eggers writes, are producing lots of future consultants, lobbyists and nonprofit executives.
Over the past few years, I've spoken to hundreds of students at leading graduate schools of public policy and administration. On these visits, I always ask two questions. First: How many are going into public service of one kind? Invariably, I'm greeted by a sea of raised hands.
I then ask for a show of hands of everyone who plans to go into government service. Most of the hands go down. The training grounds for our future public servants are instead producing lots of future consultants, lobbyists and nonprofit executives.
This didn't start last week. Walk the halls of many government agencies, and you cannot help but be struck by the dearth of thirtysomethings. For a variety of reasons, Gen X'ers have largely avoided government work. And if things don't change, the public sector is poised to lose another generation of workers: Gen Y. This time, however, the result could well be a crisis, given that government agencies face a growing wave of retiring Baby Boomers.
Replacing those Baby Boomers has been a frustrating task. Governments at all levels struggle to articulate the unique opportunity for personal and professional growth that working in the public sector presents.
Little recognized is that many of the workplace values most important to Gen Y align well with public-sector work. For example, Gen Y displays a notable preference for job mobility within a single organization as opposed to the open market. The public sector can capitalize on this by highlighting the variety of opportunities available within public-sector employment.
Gen Y'ers are also predisposed to have a strong interest in public service and the pursuit of meaningful work, both of which bode well for government recruiting efforts. Seventy-four percent of university students interested in working for the federal government in the United States cite "the opportunity to make a difference" as a major reason for their interest.1
The bad news is that certain perceptions of government work, if not reversed, will continue to act as powerful deterrents to Gen Y. The image of the public sector as a slow-moving, bureaucratic monolith at odds with the fast-moving, anti-bureaucratic Gen Y, for example, can persuade many to look elsewhere. There is also the perception that government is light years behind the private sector in using the latest collaboration technologies.
Finally, the public sector must also compete with the nonprofit sector for the affections of a socially conscious Gen Y. In numerous surveys, college students interested in public service favor working for nonprofit organizations over the public sector. Sixty percent of college students identify the nonprofit sector as better at spending money wisely compared to government; 76 percent consider the nonprofit sector better at helping people.
How can government leaders reverse the negative perceptions Gen Y has of public sector jobs?
Step one involves modernizing hiring practices. In extreme cases, these require multiple levels of clearances and approvals and chew up months, even years, before the candidate knows whether she has the job. Private firms gain an advantage by promptly making formal offers to the most qualified candidates -- often before public agencies even reach the interview stage. In many cases, graduates of top public policy schools must choose between a clear-cut job offer from a private firm and the vague impression of a possible offer from a government agency.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, government is capable of radically improving hiring practices. For example, by using technology, the U.S. Census Bureau was able to reduce the time required to hire staff in several critical positions from six months to as little as three days.
Beyond recruiting, the public sector must change the perception that a new employee faces an interminable wait before reaching a position where she can make an impact. The best employees should be put on a fast track to positions of increased responsibility. Fast tracking helps government agencies address the looming shortage of critical skills by accelerating the development of staff to replace the coming wave of retiring workers.
The best and brightest admitted to the British Civil Service's Fast Stream program are exposed to a series of intensive job placements designed to prepare them for senior managerial positions. Not only are Fast Streamers heavily engaged in high-profile projects within their departments, they also are eligible for priority hiring in other departments and agencies.
Similarly, the familiar bureaucratic silos won't suffice when it comes to retaining Gen-Y'ers. More networked government agencies with better knowledge sharing, fewer silos and a horizontally organized workplace can offer a rewarding environment that complements the social importance of public sector work.
It's no longer sufficient to wave the flag and point out how worn the marble steps are. There is a huge opportunity to transform government into the kind of place that Gen-Y'ers will want to call their own. As the Baby Boomers clean off their desks, there is no time like the present to make that happen.
1. Back to School: Rethinking Federal Recruiting on College Campuses, Partnership for Public Service, May 2006, p.12.
Mr. Eggers provides a thoughtful oversight, complete with ideas for solutions, for the problems faced by government agencies in hiring and retaining the "best and the brightest." I would add to the list the benefit package offered by most government agencies. Benefit packages are lagging behind because they lack the flexibility and innovation of the private sector. For instance, many governments still insist on packaging vacation and sick leave times separately. Private-sector employers often offer "personal" days. This can be very important to younger employees who are less likely to need to utilize sick days. Private-sector employers are also much more likely to offer a more-inclusive health insurance package, particularly for those employees, young and old, whose families might not fall into a narrowly defined box of married with children.
The biggest obstacle for governments is their insistence that their benefit packages make up for low wages. In reality, the benefit packages are heavily weighted to lifetime employees, a concept outdated in today's employment market. Employees entering the job market aren't interested in the Rule of 90. Governments need to step outside and take a look at their market, and integrate flexibility and rapid-reward systems.
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