The civil service is facing its most profound challenge since Congress created the merit system a century ago. That system has been replaced by a flexible, multi-sectored public service spanning government, nonprofit agencies and even private firms. This new public service is characterized by change more than constancy.
But the federal government was designed for a workforce that has not existed for several decades. Built around 30-year careers with one way in right after high school or college and one way out at retirement, it is a place for employees who care more about long-term security than short-term achievement.
When young Americans are asked to picture themselves in public service careers, they see dead-end jobs ruled by seniority, not performance. The civil service system has virtually stood still for the past 20 years, but the culture of work has changed dramatically, in no small part due to downsizing and corporate mergers. Young Americans are less committed to careers and sectors than their elders, and they are less willing to sign on for traditional apprenticeships.
Unfortunately, the federal government is not configured to offer the work young Americans want. Beset by downsizing, 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 imagining a new public service in which expertise moves freely among the government, private and nonprofit sectors.
Losing Its Edge
The federal government is losing the talent war on two fronts. Its personnel system is slow in hiring, almost useless in firing, overly permissive in promoting, out of touch with performance and penurious in training. And it lacks any system at all for managing the government’s vast, hidden workforce of contractors and consultants who work side-by-side with civil servants.
Government’s hierarchies are so thickened by needless layers that agencies cannot provide the kind of work that today’s labor market expects. Gone are the days when the federal government could compete for talent by offering an entry-level job or by giving a talented student the chance to serve for a decade or two before rising to the pinnacle of an associate deputy assistant secretary post. Top graduates are not just saying “show me the job,” but “show me the job now.”
Anyone who thinks this year’s 4.8 percent federal pay increase will turn the tide in drawing talent can forget about it. All things being equal, pay might pull the occasional student away from a private consulting job toward government. But all things are not equal. The federal government is usually so far behind the private and nonprofit sectors in offering challenging work and the chance to advance that pay rarely comes into play.
Entry-level interest is so low that the National Academy of Public Administration’s Center for Human Resources Management reports that roughly two out of five entry-level employees actually come from inside government. Middle-level positions are filled from the inside too, but mostly because the vacancies are reserved for the next civil servant in line.
Grabbing for Grads
Nowhere is the new public service more evident than at the nation’s top public policy and administration schools. Graduates of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School, Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, and the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School represent a public service that is clearly at odds with the traditional federal career.
According to a survey I conducted while writing The New Public Service (Brookings Institution Press, 1999), public administration graduates in recent classes were twice as likely to take first jobs in the nonprofit and private sectors, compared to earlier classes. About 1,000 graduates who came out of the top public administration schools over a 20-year period were interviewed. About half of 1993 graduates started their public service careers in a non-governmental job, while only 25 percent eschewed government careers two decades earlier.
The rise of the non-governmental sector as a destination of choice reflects significant changes in what graduates think of the three sectors. Government still is seen among graduates as the sector most likely to represent the public interest, but those interviewed say it trails both the private and nonprofit sectors in spending money wisely and helping people.
Another characteristic of the new public service is that its members simply do not stay put. The survey showed that earlier graduates switched sectors the most, but they have had more time to exercise their choices. More recent classes are likely to exceed the switching rates of earlier graduates, since these newcomers believe it is unwise to stay long with any one employer.
Graduates who take their first jobs outside government are more likely to stay put than those who start inside government, according to the survey. However, the private and nonprofit sectors aren’t immune from the struggle to hold onto talent. The nonprofit sector was particularly volatile as a first destination, with significant percentages of graduates moving out over time. But when these graduates moved from a private or nonprofit job, they were more likely to move to the other nongovernmental sector than into government. Once outside, they were likely to stay outside, in part because government offers so few job opportunities at the middle and senior levels.
Regardless of where they choose to work, members of the new public service remain deeply committed to making a difference through their careers. This is the one characteristic in which the new public service is indistinguishable from the old public service. Graduates of all five classes interviewed shared a motivation to serve and find challenging work. Recruiting a new public servant is pretty straightforward: just offer a good job, a challenge, learning opportunities, a good boss, the chance to make an impact, and maybe even a bit of public respect.
It is tempting to describe government’s recruiting problem as little more than a pay problem. The reality is that higher pay might make graduates take a second look, but would never be enough to make them commit. As the private-sector recruiters who visit the top public policy and administration schools will testify, pay is only tangential to the final choice. These recruiters may show up in October with $65,000 offers and $5,000 signing bonuses, but most public policy and administration graduates wait until they see the range of opportunities before making a final choice. In the end, government often loses because of its reputation as a bad place to work, not because of pay.
A Seller’s Market
Governments at all levels face an enormous challenge in competing for talent in what has become a seller’s public service labor market. Pay by itself cannot make government more competitive. Nor will a more aggressive recruiting process. Although there are still good jobs in government, the message to government recruiters is simple: Governments must make the work more inviting.
Governments at all levels have neglected the career development process for decades, allowing agencies to ignore the steady calcification of career paths and erosion of learning opportunities. Remedies could include a flatter, more agile government; broader career paths; and even restoration of the rotational assignments that once made the Presidential Management Internship the most exciting learning opportunity in government.
Even where there have been reform efforts, implementation has been weak at best and 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. The law’s plans for performance-based pay were an acknowledged failure. Its design for an elite, highly mobile Senior Executive Service was a disappointment. Its invitation to experiment was mostly obscured in a series of tiny initiatives. And its grand inventory of new opportunities for learning and growth was a distant, unfunded mirage.
What can government do to become more competitive? It must declare a human capital crisis that merits immediate action among legislators and executives alike. The crisis cannot be solved with the current inventory of government recruitment programs, which were designed for a workforce that has not existed in years. Government makes it easy for the most talented employees to leave at any point in their careers, but does virtually nothing to create entry points for mid-career candidates.
Recruitment and retention are no longer two sides of the same coin. Government must become more aggressive at middle- and upper-level recruiting. This means opening more jobs to competition from the outside instead of reserving the vast majority of promotions for internal candidates. Some talented employees will leave government, but the departures will be a small price to pay for access to talented outsiders. The vast majority of graduates surveyed still believe that working for government is part of a public service career, even graduates who have spent their careers working solely outside of government.
For now, however, the barrier between government and the private and nonprofit sectors remains nearly impenetrable. Perhaps it is time for the Office of Personnel Management to create a mid-career PMI program to parallel its entry-level version.
Recruitment does not end with the formal hiring process. Government has an obligation to provide challenging work and the opportunity for growth. Nothing is more irresponsible than recruiting a talented graduate and squandering that commitment in a dead-end job. Career development is an ongoing organizational obligation. But the government simply does not have the human resource expertise to design a recruitment, retention and career development process to fit the new public service. The government must start rebuilding the human resource function that has been decimated by a decade of downsizing.
If the government does not want to be the employer of last resort in the talent war, it must become the recruiter of first approach. Federal recruiters can derive little comfort from having hundreds of names on their application lists if those names come from the bottom quarter of their graduating classes or if they are drawn to government solely for the security.
A Human Capital Crisis
The federal human capital crisis has been simmering for the better part of two decades and has been disguised by the massive downsizing that began with military base closings after the end of the Cold War. Because federal agencies have been hiring fewer and fewer new employees, they could delude themselves into thinking they could still get enough talent to maintain core capacity.
The federal government is on the cusp of a massive brain drain caused by the retirements of the baby-boom employees who entered 30-year careers in the 1960s and 1970s. Agencies must now compete for talent in the midst of a growing labor shortage with tools and career paths designed for a bygone era. The result is a human capital crisis that could weaken government performance from top to bottom. Unless Congress and the President act soon to start building a civil service relevant to a new generation of talent, the federal government will take a flying leap into an empty talent pool.
Paul Light is Douglas Dillon senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for the Public Service and author of The True Size of Government and The New Public Service (Brookings Institution Press, 1999).