Let me introduce you to the next-generation public servant
- By Steve Kelman
- Apr 26, 1998
Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.Despite many recent stories in the press chronicling the government's difficulties in attracting and retaining information technology professionals, my return to teaching has shown me that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Since the beginning of February, I've been teaching one section of a required public management course for students working on their master's degrees. In this class I have just less than 50 students. Three are recent Air Force Academy graduates; one is transitioning from being an Army cavalry commander to teaching at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.; three were public school teachers; one was a CNN assignment editor. A surprising number have worked in corporate finance or investments. The vast majority will work in some form of public service— many in international organizations and nonprofit groups, some in consulting, a good number for the federal government.
The bottom line is that this is a bunch of students who actually want to help make the world a better place, and they believe that government might be a congenial location for young people with that bent. The first day of class we discussed an Illinois Department of Social Services program that works with local black churches to improve the placement of hard-to-adopt children. For the program to succeed, social workers needed to change how they traditionally did business, and they began to go out into the community for evening meetings in addition to adapting adoption requirements. In talking about why the social workers might be willing to change their traditional ways, one of the students, Rina Agarwala, noted that the agency had a mission to help children and that a manager could successfully appeal to that mission in coaxing change. Here are a few more student voices and their impression of federal government employees.
Dan Runde, who worked as an intern in the Bush White House and more recently as an investment banker, said: "I had spent two years in investment banking and decided that I did not like what I was doing. The money was great, but I was being asked to commit my entire life to an enterprise that I did not enjoy."
Celeste Johnson, who worked as an intern in the Defense Department, said: "Like many people these days, I did not have a very good impression of people who worked in the federal government for most of my life. After all, most of us have had pretty bad experiences, and often it seems like incompetence is a prerequisite for entry into the civil service. But all of that changed when I worked at the Pentagon. I worked with people who worked their tails off, day in and day out, and they are good. There was no room for failure, incompetence or complacency."
Alicia Mandel, who worked at DOD and a Defense think tank, said: "The people I've worked with in government are all very hard workers, more so than I have seen in the private sector— with a few exceptions, of course." But "most seem to be working for the government not because they want to serve the public but because they have their own agenda of getting ahead. I know this sounds terrible, but unfortunately I have met many people who seem to be this way. Although I must admit, I am only familiar with those in the national security aspect of public service. Those serving more domestic interests may be different."
So in spite of everything the media has done to poison people's impressions of government, there are still young people around— and some bright ones at that— who don't go along. They will make good contributions from the new generation to public service.