Talent Pool Runs Dry

September 1, 1999

There is deeply troubling news elsewhere in this issue of Government Executive on the future of the public service. Simply stated, the federal talent pool is about to start draining out with little or nothing in the pipeline to replace it. It is a crisis of staggering, if quiet, proportions, and one that merits immediate action at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. It is also a problem that cannot be solved with the current inventory of federal recruitment programs.

The fact is that the traditional government-centered public service is dead. Designed to sustain 30-year careers with one way in at the entry level and one way out at retirement, the government-centered public service is increasingly irrelevant to a workforce that will change jobs and sectors frequently, and to workers who are much more focused on challenging work than job security. Gone are the days when talented employees would endure endless hiring delays and a mind-numbing application process just to get a government job. Gone, too, are the days when talented employees would accept slow but steady advancement through towering government bureaucracies in exchange for a 30-year commitment. In the midst of a growing labor shortage, government is becoming an employer of last resort, one that caters more to the security-craver than the risk-taker.

Simply stated, young Americans are no longer willing to wait patiently for the chance to accomplish something worthwhile. Having set annual volunteering records in college, they want tangible results on the job. If that means a job with a private firm or nonprofit organization, so be it. The government-centered public service has been replaced by a new public service in which government must compete for talent. Unfortunately, the federal government simply is not configured to offer the work that young Americans want. Beset by downsizing, battered by political scandal, and plagued by a never-ending war on waste, the federal government has yet to articulate a clear vision of how to compete against the private sector for talent. Agencies are struggling just to hold the talent they already have, let alone imagine a new public service in which expertise moves more freely among agencies.

The resulting erosion of talent is still a few years off into the future, but that doesn’t make it less threatening to democratic life. Ultimately, effective governance is impossible if government cannot attract talented citizens to serve at all levels of the hierarchy. Citizens cannot have confidence in the integrity of the democratic process if their leaders cannot honor their promises. Leaders cannot honor their promises if government cannot attract the talent necessary to draft and execute the laws.

The federal government’s problem in competing for talent is twofold. First, its current hiring system for recruiting talent, top to bottom, is underwhelming. The more the Office of Personnel Management reminds agencies that they have the authority to move fast, the less the agencies seem willing to do so.

Second, government appears to be less and less able to provide the kind of work that today’s labor market expects. The civil service system has mostly stood still since 1978, but the culture of work has changed dramatically.

Government is not even winning the battle among young people who have already made the decision to spend their careers serving the public. The federal government is running dead last in the competition for talent at the nation’s top public policy and administration schools, where half of the graduates are heading to nonprofit organizations and private firms. Consulting firms will start showing up at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Syracuse’s Maxwell School in October with job offers of $65,000 to $75,000 in starting pay and another $5,000 to $10,000 in signing bonuses.

Sadly, the federal government will probably not show up at all. With fewer and fewer good jobs to offer, a career development system in tatters, and the Presidential Management Internship program tarnished by a decade of inattention, it is up to top graduates to find the federal government, not vice versa. And it is up to the schools to sell their students on government. The Kennedy School now offers $10,000 in debt relief to any student who takes a PMI. If only the federal government would match the offer.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is little evidence that government will win the recruiting battle with higher pay. Pay is no doubt important as students consider first jobs, but it is far less important than the nature of the job. And it is on that count that government is losing ground.

Government simply cannot succeed by using the same pipeline that is failing it now. It is time to start laying a new pipeline that accepts the reality that the 30-year, government-centered career is gone for good. The brain drain actually offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reconfigure careers and rebuild the excitement that once marked a job in government. OPM says it is ready to start digging, but has been unable to convince Congress, the President, and the labor unions that the federal government’s well has run dry.