Kelman: Battling for young hearts and minds

With another graduating class, what will it take for government to attract the best and the brightest?

With the graduation of another class of public policy students from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, my thoughts turn again to what the government needs to do to attract smart young people.

Let’s start with the obvious. During the past 30 years, a salary gap has widened between young professionals in government and the private sector. In the 1960s, the starting salary of a Justice Department attorney was only slightly less than the salary of a Wall Street lawyer. Now it’s a tiny fraction. Meanwhile, student debt levels have skyrocketed.

Agencies are enacting some attractive measures. Help with loan repayment can make a major difference. Without it, some recent graduates may be financially unable to accept federal jobs. The policy that lets students with a master’s degree start at a higher pay grade — General Schedule 11 rather than 9 — is a big help, too. But without a major cultural change, the financial gap will persist.

The government can close the gap. Singapore pays senior officials salaries that are nearly equal to private-sector ones. In the United Kingdom, the salary gap is nowhere near what it is in the United States.

As it stands, government must emphasize its other benefits. For my students, those benefits include interesting missions and the ability to make a difference. But the perception — and often the reality — of poor management and a sprawling bureaucracy hamper those advantages.

My students have become increasingly sensitive in the past few years to the quality of an organization’s management. Many of them worked for nonprofit organizations before coming to Harvard. They have made many comments — in class and assignments — about the chaos and poor quality of management they experienced. It was poor enough to make such organizations less attractive.

In this regard, Hurricane Katrina was devastating for the government’s reputation among my students. It is sad that during the tenure of the country’s first president who has an MBA, the worst catastrophe in decades for the government’s management credibility occurred. Everyone who cares about government has an interest in getting the Federal Emergency Management Agency back on its feet.

Another blemish on the attractiveness of government jobs is a reputation for bureaucracy — too many rules and procedures and not enough opportunities for young people to get decision-making responsibility. A recent survey by the Partnership for Public Service found that “too much bureaucracy” was the single strongest disadvantage of government work young people mentioned. Every time politicians and agency officials scurry to make government more process-bound — proposals for a reversion to bureaucracy in procurement come to mind — I bemoan how government creates self-inflicted wounds that worsen our workforce crisis.

Agencies can overcome some of those problems. The Government Accountability Office has become more attractive to my students because it makes quick offers and provides jobs in which students can earn responsibility early in their careers. Some agencies help young employees with loan repayments. We can’t give up fighting for the hearts and minds of young people.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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