Respond to this Article November 2000

Finding The Civil Service's Hidden Sex Appeal

Why the brightest young people shy away from government

By Nicholas Thompson

The cover of a brochure given out by the federal Office of Personnel Management shows a young man in sunglasses crouching like a surfer and holding a model spaceship labeled "United States." The brochure bellows "Look Ma! I'm a Bureaucrat!" in a funky yellow font and notes that the cover model, Dan Ridge, is the 24-year-old program director of the computer crime division at NASA. He "wears jeans to the office" and "uses supercomputing technology to protect NASA's worldwide computer system." The brochure goes on to profile more hip young people working in the public sector, including the new, fast-paced, reinvented government. The message: If you're young, ambitious, and looking to make a difference helping other people and the country, you too can be like Dan Ridge!

But if you call NASA to ask Ridge about his wonderful government job, you'll have some trouble finding him. Turns out he left town not long after posing for the brochure. Now he develops supercomputing technology called Beowulf clusters for Scyld, a startup company in Maryland. He didn't leave because he wanted more money---he's earning about the same amount now---or because he didn't like his job. He left because there just wasn't anywhere to move up to without sticking around for another 10 years. "My work was fantastic. I loved it. But it was clear that there was no further path for advancement."

Ridge's complaint is all too familiar. Despite the Office of Personnel Management's (OPM's) efforts, time still seems to move more slowly inside the federal government than outside: It takes longer to get hired, it's nearly impossible to get fired, and the promotional fast track moves like molasses compared to the private sector. Although that has been true for at least a century, the problem is getting worse. The private sector has vastly improved at scooping up talented young people, the call to service rings less loudly for young people today, and the civil service seems specifically designed to repel anyone born after about 1970.

The government's recruitment shortcomings threaten to become a national crisis. The flood of people who entered the federal government in the '60s and '70s is getting ready to start collecting social security, and there's a thin bench ready either to replace them or to move up the ranks. Sixty-five percent of the Senior Executive Service, the government's most elite managers, will be eligible to retire by 2004, and only about five percent of the civil service is under 30. That doesn't mean they will all leave, but according to a recent National Academy of Public Administration report, "the flow of high-quality new hires in federal departments and agencies has decreased dramatically while the average age of workers has risen."

It's not time to flee to Canada, but civil-service reform should be an urgent priority for the next administration. The government needs talented new recruits for the sake of people who drink tap water, drive the highways, or buy securities; and the potential consequences of the looming exodus are unnerving. Clinton and Gore should be applauded for making government reinvention a priority, but they didn't shake up the rules in a way that would significantly attract young people. They improved procurement, and they made the government smaller; but they didn't scour the agencies to determine where people are plotting innovative policy solutions, and where they are simply plotting their next conference trips to Maui.

That's a shame because what's going to pull bright young people in won't be a shrunken bureaucracy, or even higher salaries, but a civil service where they can find exciting and useful jobs with real responsibility and high ceilings---just what Dan Ridge wanted.

Kids Today

According to a recent study by Paul Light of the Brookings Institution, the percentage of students from top graduate schools of public policy and management---the folks most likely to be interested in government careers---who go on to work for government has dropped from 76 percent in 1974 to 55 percent in 1988 to 49 percent today, with state, local, and federal government all losing their appeal. The percentage of master's graduates from Syracuse's Maxwell School and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who actually pursue the careers their schools were designed for has plunged by 50 percent over two decades.

From the inside, the numbers look equally grim. The percentage of Presidential Management Interns who stay in government, the young people on the fastest possible track into the civil service, is stuck at 50 percent; the number of applications to the White House Fellows program has sunk. According to the National Association for Law Placement, the percentage of law school graduates going into the government has declined slowly but steadily for 25 years, from about 20 percent to 13 percent in 1998. If government were a stock, everybody would be selling it short.

These trends in government service partly reflect the generational shift in attitudes toward government itself. They don't much trust it, and they don't vote in high numbers. According to a 30-year study of freshman attitudes by Alexander Astin at UCLA, the percentage of students who say that they "want to keep up to date with political affairs" has skidded from above 50 percent in the late '60s and early '70s to below 30 percent today.

But this withdrawal doesn't come, as many critics of Generation X argue, simply because recent graduates are too busy dreaming about hundred-dollar bills, thousand-dollar suits, and million-dollar homes. In Astin's study, for example, the percentage of students who consider it critical to be "very well off financially" has famously risen from just under 40 percent in 1970 to 74 percent today. But the percentage was even higher in 1986. Plus, there are some trends moving in the direction of civic engagement: The number of young people who perform some sort of volunteer work is at an all-time high and, according to Light's study of graduates from public management schools, only 17 percent said that salary was a very important consideration for their first job. Eighty percent cited the opportunity to do challenging work.

The real reason young people have withdrawn from government is that government has developed a reputation as a place where the wheels spin endlessly and great ideas are filed away into a bottomless heap of paper. According to Greg Wright, a young Stanford honors graduate who wants to work for the government eventually, but went from college to a consulting group and a dot-com instead of joining a dot-gov: "I want to make as big a splash as I can. Government keeps you in the kiddy pool unless you know someone, have a lot of money, or you have been working in the basement for 20 years."

Executive Insufficiency

Wright's attitude shouldn't be surprising considering that the men who have dominated the federal government for the past 25 years have all treated it with something between lukewarm praise and outward hostility. Ronald Reagan set the tone in his inaugural address---"Government is not the solution to our problem. It is the problem!"---and then placed a team of anti-bureaucrats at OPM. Led by Donald Devine, OPM seemed to strangle recruitment efforts, terminating, for example, all promotional material for VISTA, the Great Society program that sent young people into poor areas to teach and work. One OPM official, Terry Cutler, wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 1986, "Government's goal should not be employee excellence but employee sufficiency."

Reagan's rhetoric wasn't an anomaly. Every president since Jimmy Carter has come to office by swinging at the bureaucratic bugbear. Clinton's most famous line is "The era of big government is over," and Gore began his report on reinventing government with this zinger: "The federal government is not simply broke; it is broken." Gore's criticism was in the context of useful suggestions for change, but neither that, nor his repeated boasts about how much the government has shrunk in the past eight years, are quite as good an invitation to service as: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

The recruitment problems aren't simply a failure of rhetoric from the top; they're also a failure of execution in the middle. When Wright was a college senior, the consulting group he eventually joined socked his campus newspaper full of ads every day, interviewed him twice, and then flew him to L.A. for a dream weekend complete with a Mustang convertible. Government recruitment was nowhere to be seen, and if Greg had called its toll-free job line he would have been met by an awkward robotic voice blurting out an endless stream of nearly incomprehensible job numbers. If he had called the Smithsonian Institution, for example, he would have been encouraged to listen to a tutorial on the endless codes, terms, and processes necessary to apply, including "the definition of important technical terms you will need to understand to become a competitive applicant."

To be sure, Al Gore's reinvented government has begun to clean these problems up, and job postings are now available through an extensive Web site. But even these efforts have fallen short---in no small part because the federal personnel workforce, the people in charge of recruitment, has declined by 20 percent from 1991 to 1998.

The Civil Service

Although you wouldn't know it from the toll-free job-hunt line, government can still be a great place to work. And this is where federal public relations efforts really fall short. Rarely do you hear, for instance, that the percentage of federal employees reporting that they are satisfied with their jobs is higher than the comparable number in the private sector, according to a 1999 Reinventing Government survey. For example, Jason Goldwater, a 30-year-old employee of the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), has spent the last two years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and HCFA designing a common data set of Medicaid users---data that will vastly improve our ability to track the incidence of health problems like asthma. He loves his job both because it's exciting and because, "when I go home, I want to think about what I've done, not just a paycheck." Martin Yeung, 25, left investment banking to join the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and now works there as assistant to the deputy director of management. That may sound boring, but Yeung has got a great job and he loves his work. The OMB controls how legislation across the government is implemented---from airline safety regulation to federally financed student loans---and sits consistently in the middle of conflicts between agencies, the White House, and Congress. According to Yeung, "It's as fast as The West Wing'; it's bare knuckles; it's Olympic wrestling. The only way to outmaneuver opponents is to be on top of everything."

But there aren't enough great jobs like Yeung's and Goldwater's and, unfortunately, far too many young people get stuck in boring ones and leave before they can find real job satisfaction. Out of college, I entered a fellowship program with about 40 other graduates interested in public service careers. We all got jobs with the federal government and lived together in Washington. None of us stayed more than two years. The only two people continuing the work they started with were the only two who didn't join the civil service but instead went to work for Congress.

Government simply deserves part of its bad reputation. The federal civil service remains locked in a structure built in the early 1880s after a disaffected job seeker assassinated James Garfield because so many jobs had been doled out through the patronage system. The solution then was to essentially put the civil service in a lock box. Federal employees are guaranteed stability and consistent, slow promotions---from GS-13 to GS-14 after two years and so on. They can't get fired except through a torturous review process.

This means that the main way to open up jobs is to create new ones, instead of clearing out old ones. And, in the anti-bureaucratic fervor of the past 20 years, that has been nearly impossible. According to Fred Smith, a deputy assistant secretary of defense who has spent his whole career working for the country: "It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to hire anyone from the outside. We've had maybe four young people come in this year, and all were from the Presidential Management Internship program." Smith has only been able to fire one person in 22 years, and what happened then is instructive. "I tried for three years but two weeks before the process worked through, he chose early retirement and took a $25,000 bonus," said Smith.

In addition, the rules of the civil service don't just block job openings; they also create a bureaucratic mentality that encourages survival over innovation. Agency funding gets renewed every year, even if the work has become obsolete, as long as it can stay below Congress' radar. Salary and rank are based on the number of people supervised, not on the amount of work accomplished. Lastly, once you've left government it's very hard to come back in, a policy that prevents conflicts of interest but also blocks out innovative employees who wanted to step out for a few years and learn about another business culture. In the 1999 government survey of federal employees, only 33 percent said that creativity and innovation were rewarded by the government.

This system limits political meddling and provides safe harbor for saintly civil servants who have been quietly serving for years, but it also makes the civil service singularly unappealing to this generation of young people. In part because of the booming economy and the tremendous opportunities for growth in information technology, this has become the "free agent generation." As Aparna Mohan, a Presidential Management Intern working at the Agency for International Development, says, "Our goal is to have the career be the sum of all the jobs we've had---not to just get one job and make it a whole career."

In short, the advantages of government employment---long-term stability and structure---are the last things that young people seem to care about. The average member of the elite Senior Executive Service, for example, has been working in government for 23 years, more than a lifetime for today's graduates; the average 32-year-old has already worked for nine different companies and is looking around to bounce to a few more. Government just doesn't seem to offer the new thing. As Phil Keisling, the former secretary of state of Oregon and now a vice president at PROdx, a Portland internet consulting firm, puts it, "The rate of change curve is just steeper in the private sector relative to government and the gap is widening."

Uncle Sam Needs You

The government's talent shortage should worry us all. Government employees research asthma at the CDC; they keep planes from crashing at the FAA; and they're the one's who decide when it's safe to set off Forest Service-controlled burns near your house.

Moreover, without top young talent, government is no match for the private sector it is supposed to regulate. Corporations that don't want to pay taxes hire lawyers who compete with the IRS. Mining companies that don't want to pay royalties hire smart lawyers who work wonders with federal law. The government is now entering a critical high-stakes battle with the private sector to see who controls the patents to our DNA. Does anyone really want first-rate people on the corporate side and second-rate people on the public's side?

In addition, a great deal of government work is now contracted out---from the administration of welfare programs to the management of private prisons. But contracting work out doesn't preclude the need for smart people in government: You still need smart people to make sure that the public isn't sold a bill of goods. Many of the security problems at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory in New Mexico, for example, weren't just caused by the Department of Energy, but rather by lax oversight from the University of California at Berkeley, the main contractor running the lab.

This isn't to say that there's something bad about working for corporate America and the private sector. We're lucky that Henry Ford didn't work for the Department of Commerce, just as we're lucky that executives like IBM's Lou Gerstner and private inventors like Linus Torvalds are improving the ways that America runs. The growth of our private businesses is a primary reason for the current economic boom and its bounties.

The problem is one of balance. A society in which every ambitious environmentalist goes to work for the EPA or a nonprofit would fall apart because there would be no one to help develop non-polluting effluent systems or to argue internally for the limitation of greenhouse gas emissions. A society in which every ambitious environmentalist goes to work for McKinsey and GE would fall apart because there would be no one to write the regulations and to test pollution levels. Unfortunately, we seem to be shifting to the latter.

Give Youth A Chance

The obvious solution to attracting better people to government is to pay them more. Money does help bring people into government, particularly if targeted to those who need it most, like OPM Director Janice Lachance's recent initiative to allow agencies to pay back student loans as part of the government's often-invoked program to provide relocation, retention, and recruitment bonuses. But even that seems unlikely to reverse current trends. Government will never be able to pay as much as the private sector, no matter how much it tinkers on the margins of federal salary structures. To improve recruitment it needs to rely on its prime advantage: the ability to allow young people to serve others with useful work. According to Lily Batchelder, a 28-year-old law school student who has worked both for a consulting group and the Justice Department: "The problems you try to solve working in government are complex and fascinating. Working in a place where you are focused on profit is like going to a good action movie. It can be fun, but it doesn't hit your soul."

Whether you work in the State Department or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, you have the clear chance to make other people's lives better. This is a powerful incentive, and it's the prime reason that government still attracts as much talent as it does. But the potential to do good doesn't mean much if you can't actually do anything. An idealist who joins an organization only to find her work stifled by rules, regulations, and a boss who comes in at noon, won't stay an idealist for long. If Lily Batchelder finds herself in an agency that's spinning its wheels, she won't stay a government employee for long.

What government needs to do is to improve the ratio of useful to useless work that new employees can do. Fortunately, there are examples right in government---like the White House, the one place in Washington where young people always seem to want to work. In fact, the draw is such that more than 10 million people watch the television program "The West Wing" weekly. They don't watch because they can see the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management cross wires. They watch because they can see young people who struggle with moral dilemmas, move quickly, and make everything from the Census to potential war, seem interesting.

In the Clinton White House, similarly, no rules lock employees into place or scuttle promotions, and the days move as quickly as in any dot-com. George Stephanopolous, Rahm Emanuel, and Gene Sperling rose to the top of the hierarchy on plain merit, not because they spent 16 years in the basement of the Interior Department. According to 25-year-old-speechwriter Joshua Gottheimer, who joined the White House after college and a brief stint scooping ice cream at Ben and Jerry's: "There's no defined hierarchy based on age. If you are willing to work hard and put in the hours, you can do almost anything."

In part, the advantage the White House has is that the stakes are higher. It's often only when the work becomes less important that strict hierarchies cement themselves into place. The greatest opportunities for young people in the government came during the New Deal and New Frontier, when they were needed to push forward ambitious and innovative new programs. Even during the arms race, young people were frequently promoted into positions of power. According to James Woolsey, who joined the SALT I negotiating team at age 27 and was counsel to the Senate Armed Services Committee before he turned 30: "Any time there is something brand new like arms control, there are opportunities for young people. The bureaucracy isn't entrenched yet."

The Department of Justice has similar success by placing few limits on the kind of work you can do when you come to it. At the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C., for example, everyone enters a four-year program that throws them into the middle of important and exciting cases. On Capitol Hill the story is the same. Staffers join their representatives knowing that they can't prepare for 30 years in government because their boss might be booted out in two. If a staff becomes stultified, it's likely their boss would soon be looking for new work.

In the rest of the federal government, the story's different. You can't come and go; you can't move around much; and frequently the good works that you planned to do bear no fruit. But there is hope. Even the Minerals Management Service can draw bright people in if reformed the right way. Consider Stephen Warren, the senior budget analyst of the chief financial officer of the District of Columbia, a city job that overlaps with the federal government which has final say over the city's budget. In a sense, Warren's job is just about looking over spreadsheets and developing revenue-collection models. But to Warren, a 28-year-old who worked for Marriott after graduating from Hampton University, it's an opportunity to improve the lives of the people around him. His proudest moment was when a revenue collection model he'd pored over for six months was approved by Congress, sending millions of dollars to the District. "You do a day's work. You can see something happening. You know, it makes you feel good," says Warren.

Warren didn't go into government thinking that he would be locked into a 30-year career with steady promotions and a group of deadwood co-workers. His boss when he started, Tony Williams, now Washington's mayor, "doesn't say that this is the last job you are going to have. He said that he wants this place to be a platform for young people to start their careers and do something good. If you choose to stay, you choose to stay."

Warren has been there for a bit more than four years and he plans to stay a little longer because he's learning, he's using his skills to serve people, and he's doing something important and useful without being stifled by bureaucracy. And, he adds, "when you come right out of school, you're not quite ready to turn your brain off."

Nicholas Thompson is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email him by clicking here or read his other articles by clicking here

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