Article

The Empty Government Talent Pool: The New Public Service Arrives

Paul C. Light

The federal public service enters the new century in the midst of its most profound transformation since Congress created the merit system in 1888.

During the past two decades, as Congress and the president have simultaneously downsized the federal workforce and devolved responsibilities to states and localities, hundreds of thousands of federal government jobs have moved from government to private firms and nonprofit agencies. Millions of people now work for private and nonprofit contractors and grantees, as well as for state and local governments, delivering services on the federal government’s behalf. The faithful execution of federal laws has come to rely increasingly on writing careful contracts, grants, and mandates—the execution of which increasingly falls less to federal employees and much more to employees of private firms and nonprofit agencies. Simply stated, the traditional government-centered public service has been replaced by a much more flexible service composed of government, private firms, and nonprofit agencies.

To this new public service workforce, the traditional federal service is increasingly irrelevant. Gone are the days when talented employees would endure a seemingly endless hiring process and accept slow but steady advancement through towering government bureaucracies in exchange for lifetime job security. Today’s public servants expect to change jobs and sectors frequently and are more focused on challenging work than on security. During their college days, they set annual volunteering records. Now they want jobs with a tangible impact. If that means a job with a private firm or nonprofit agency, so be it.

Having lost its monopoly on public service, government in general, and the federal government in particular, simply is not configured to offer the work that young Americans want. Beset by downsizing, recurrent political scandal, and 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 across the sectors.

Government’s Lost Competitive Edge

The federal government’s problem in competing for talent is twofold. First, its hiring system for recruiting talent, top to bottom, falls short at almost every task it undertakes. It is slow in hiring, almost useless in firing, overly permissive in promoting, out of touch with actual performance in rewarding, penurious in training, and utterly absent in managing a vast and hidden workforce of contractors and consultants from both the private sector and the nonprofit sector who work side-by-side, desk-by-desk with the civil service. Sad to say, when young Americans are asked to picture themselves in government careers, particularly at the federal level, they envision dead-end jobs where seniority, not performance, rules. And when more seasoned Americans are asked to picture themselves in appointive office, they see a nomination and confirmation process characterized by endless inspection, over-disclosure, and delays at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Second, government appears less and less able to provide the kind of work that today’s labor market expects. There is no question, for example, that young Americans are more lightly attached to work than previous generations or that the most talented among them can demand more from their employers. The civil service system may have mostly stood still since 1978, but the culture of work has changed dramatically, in no small part because of downsizing and corporate mergers. Government is not even winning the battle to attract young people who have already made the decision to spend their careers serving the public—that battle is being won by private firms and nonprofit agencies, many of which work in partnership with the government in delivering services.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is little evidence that government can win the recruiting battle with higher pay. Young Americans are not saying, “Show me the money” so much as “Show me the work.” And on that count government is losing ground.

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The New Public Service

Nowhere is the new public service more evident than at the nation’s top schools of public policy and administration. As go graduates of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School, Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, the University of Texas’s Lyndon B. Johnson School, and their peer institutions, so goes the public service as a whole. As I argue in The New Public Service, these graduates occupy a public service clearly at odds with the traditional government-centered career.

The new public service, at least as measured by students at the top schools, has four characteristics. First, it is becoming more diverse. Twenty years ago, the average student was a man with a few years in government, if any experience at all. Today it is a woman with significant experience in the nonprofit sector. According to my survey of 1,000 graduates of master’s programs in the top schools over the past 25 years, students are entering graduate school later in career and bringing substantial work experience, much of it in the private and nonprofit sectors, into the classroom.

Second, these graduates have a much greater interest in taking jobs outside government. Recent graduates were twice as likely as members of earlier classes to take first jobs in the nonprofit sector and have shown surprising interest in the private sector (see table 1). In all, just over half of recent graduates started their public service careers in a nongovernmental setting, with the nonprofit sector gaining the greatest ground against government. Twenty-five percent of members of the class of 1993 took their first postgraduate job in the nonprofit sector, more than double the proportion among the classes of 1973 and 1974 peers.


Table 1: Where Graduates of the Top U.S. Public Policy Schools
Started Their Careers and Where They Work Today (percent)

  Class of 1973-74 Class of 1978-79 Class of 1983 Class of 1988 Class of 1993
Sector

Government
Private
Nonprofit

First
Job

76
11
12

Current
Job

50
28
15

First
Job

62
21
15

Current
Job

46
38
12

First
Job

68
21
12

Current
Job

51
30
15

First
Job

55
21
23

Current
Job

39
32
25

First
Job

49
23
25

Current
Job

41
26
28


The rise of the nonprofit sector as a destination of choice reflects big changes in how graduates regard the three sectors. Government is still seen as the sector most likely to represent the public interest, but it has come to trail both the private and the nonprofit sectors on spending money wisely and helping people. Even government employees no longer believe government is the best place to help people or spend money wisely. Given the nearly uniform commitment to helping people among these graduates, this is arguably the absolute worst position for government in the competition for talent.

The third characteristic of the new public service is that its members move freely among the sectors (table 2). Although the earlier classes had the highest rates of sector switching, those graduates have simply had more time to move. When one compares where graduates went in the first five years after graduation, more recent classes seem likely to exceed the switching rates of their older peers.


Table 2. Career paths among Graduates of the Top Public Policy Schools
CAREER PATH SHARE OF GRADUATES

(PERCENT)
Started and stayed in government 36
Switched sectors more than once 18
Switched once from government to the private sector 11
Started and stayed in the nonprofit sector 8
Switched once from government to the nonprofit sector 5
Switched once from the private sector to government 3
Switched once from the private sector to the nonprofit sector 2
Switched once from the nonprofit sector to government 2

The switching rates, however, are not uniform across the three sectors. Government not only trails the private and nonprofit sectors in competing for new graduates, it is also the least likely to hold its talent. Regardless of when they attend school, graduates who take their first jobs outside government are more likely to stay put than those who start inside government.

This is not to argue that the private and nonprofit sectors hold talent especially well. The nonprofit sector was particularly volatile as a first destination, with large shares of graduates moving out over time. But when these graduates moved from a private or nonprofit job, they were much more likely to move to the other nongovernmental sector than into government. Once outside, they were highly likely to stay outside, in part because government offers so few opportunities for entry at the middle and senior levels.

Fourth, members of the new public service remain deeply committed to making a difference through their work. Here the new public service is indistinguishable from the old public service. Graduates of all classes I surveyed shared a common motivation to serve and a common concern for finding challenging work and the opportunity to learn. Recruiting a new public servant is just as simple as it always was: show him or her a good job, with challenge, learning opportunities, a good boss, the chance to make an impact, even a bit of public respect.

How Government Can Regain Its Edge

Government at all levels obviously faces an enormous challenge in competing for talent in what has become a seller’s public service labor market. Although higher pay might make the nation’s top public policy and administration graduates take another look at government, pay alone cannot make government more competitive. Nor will aggressive recruiting. Although there are still good jobs in government, the message to government recruiters from the graduates I interviewed is simple: make the work more inviting.

This is not the place to make the case for flatter, more agile government or to argue for broader career paths or even restoring the rotational assignments that once made the federal Presidential Management Internship (PMI) the most exciting learning opportunity in government. Suffice it to note that governments at all levels have neglected career development for decades, allowing individual departments and agencies to ignore the steady calcification of career paths and erosion of learning opportunities.

Even where reform efforts have been made, implementation has been weak at best, hostile at worst. At the federal level, for example, the 20th anniversary of the 1978 federal Civil Service Reform Act was more a cause for black crepe than celebration, its plans for pay for performance an acknowledged failure, its design for an elite, highly mobile Senior Executive Service an insular disappointment, its invitation to experimentation mostly forgotten in a series of tiny initiatives, and its grand inventory of new opportunities for learning and growth a distant, unfunded mirage. State and local governments have hardly done better. With notable exceptions in states such as Minnesota, South Carolina, and Georgia, and cities such as Indianapolis, government hierarchies continue to thicken, while outsourcing fever continues to rise.

What can government do to become more competitive? The first step is to declare a human capital crisis. The government talent pool is draining out with less and less in the pipeline to replace it. It is a crisis of staggering importance, one that merits immediate action among legislators and executives alike.

The second step is to become more aggressive at middle- and upper-level recruiting. Government must open more jobs to competition from the outside instead of reserving the vast majority of promotions for internal candidates. No doubt some talented employees will leave government, but the departures may be a small price to pay to gain access to talented outsiders. Most graduates I interviewed, even those who have spent their careers working solely outside government, still believe that working for government is part of a public service career. Indeed, many who come from—and return to—jobs in nonprofit and private agencies are actually working for government. Some 30 percent of students from the private sector and 27 percent from nonprofits report that they spent at least 80 percent of their work time on projects funded by government, while another quarter in each sector said they spent between 20 percent and 80 percent of their time on such projects. For now, however, mid-career graduates find a nearly impenetrable barrier keeping them from entering government itself.

The third step is to recognize that recruitment does not end with the formal hiring process. Government must provide challenging work and the opportunity for growth. It is irresponsible to recruit talented graduates only to squander their commitment in a dead-end job with no chance to make a difference. Today’s government, decimated by a decade of downsizing, does not have the human resource expertise to design a recruitment, retention, and career development process to fit the new public service. It must start now to rebuild that expertise.

The fourth and final step is for governments to realize that they are in a talent war with very aggressive competitors. If governments do not want to be the employer of last resort, they must become the recruiters of first approach. They can derive little comfort from having hundreds of names on their application lists if those names come from the bottom quarter of the classes or are drawn to government for the security.

The Coming Brain Drain

The federal human capital crisis has been simmering for the better part of two decades, disguised by the massive downsizings that began with the military base closings after the end of the Cold War. But the federal government is now on the cusp of a brain drain as the baby boomers who entered government-centered service during the 1960s and 1970s begin to retire. Having recruited these employees during a labor surplus, the federal government must now compete during a growing labor shortage, with tools and career paths designed for a bygone era. The result could weaken government performance from top to bottom. Unless Congress and the president begin soon to build a civil service relevant to a new generation of talent, the federal government will take a flying leap into an empty talent pool, sending public confidence in government ever lower.