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By Steve Kelman

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Harnessing the energy of youth for better government

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Aliya Sternstein recently wrote an interesting article in GovExec on how some associations with close ties to the government, such as the Air Force Association and the independent U.S. Cyber Challenge (led by former Federal CIO Karen Evans), were setting up various contests and training programs to involve young people in improving skills as cybersecurity defenders. The U.S. Cyber Challenge has both training and a contest whose winners can get scholarships to study cybersecurity. These and other organizations set up “hackathons” where young people compete with one another to defend targets against hacking.

There are obviously some potential concerns — of which the organizers are aware and which the article also discusses — that young people who learn cybersecurity defense through these kinds of programs will use their improved skills to become cyberattackers themselves. (Indeed, two participants in one of the programs were arrested in 2011 for hacking into Sony Pictures Entertainment.)

However, I bring up these efforts not specifically to discuss the cybersecurity context but rather to suggest that they are a model for an innovative way for government — in this case, indirectly — to interact with young people to help with the government’s missions. This kind of interaction also occurs when agencies use contests as a procurement tool because, surprisingly often, those entering these contests are young people who would otherwise have no real way to help agencies solve mission problems.

So I am urging agency managers to think about new ways to harness the energy and enthusiasm of young people to help in government missions, other than the traditional way of having them sign up as civil servants. The missions of government are, of course, so varied that the ideas will need to be tailored to each mission. In general, agencies that are able to accept volunteer services and that have a local presence — the National Park Service comes to mind — are obvious candidates for organizing volunteer activities for young people. But the specifics are not something that can be generated by the author of a blog post (though suggestions in the form of blog comments are welcome). They are ideas smart agency managers should develop.

There are at least two obvious benefits. The first is giving agencies new ideas and new energy from this kind of participation. The second is tying a new generation of Americans more closely to the government that serves them.

Posted on Dec 11, 2012 at 9:03 AM


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