Public-service scholars

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"Show me the work!"

The government's challenge in recruiting and retaining bright young people to create a new generation of public servants has garnered widespread attention — particularly in light of the expected retirement of large numbers of federal employees during the next few years. There is no magic-bullet solution to this challenge. But I would like to suggest an idea that would cost less than $1 million a year and potentially have a significant impact.

How about establishing a prestigious award, given every year to 20 career-service federal employees, that would allow them to take a year off from their jobs at the government's expense to study public policy and management at the graduate level? These employees would apply after having served five years in government. Call it a Rhodes Scholarship for young public servants. Sen. George Voinovich's (R-Ohio) legislation on the government's workforce crisis, on which hearings will be held in March, would be a great vehicle for adopting this idea.

Young civil servants throughout the government would compete for the awards. The selections would be made by a distinguished committee of senior civil servants, retired high-level government officials and scholars committed to public service. Winners would agree to continue to serve in the federal government for at least three years after their year in the program. They could be given increased opportunities for fast-track promotions, such as a reduction in minimum time-in-grade requirements, in their agency.

Graduate schools of public administration and public policy would compete for hosting the program by developing a tailored curriculum and other resources to make the program as attractive as possible. The contract should be put up for new bids every few years.

A single program at a single location creates several advantages. It allows developing a course of study especially tailored for these young stars. Crucially, it would allow 20 extraordinary young career public servants from different agencies to get to know one another, helping them establish a network that will make it easier to share knowledge and perspectives across agencies, as well as to organize the kinds of cross-agency collaborations that are likely to become increasingly important as time goes on. I would hope that those participating in the program would develop an e-mail network and that the organizing university would provide an annual refresher event that would bring together participants from multiple years of the program.

A program such as this goes beyond what the private sector generally offers in terms of recognition and a paid educational opportunity, and would be an incentive for bright young people to sign up for government service. It would send an electrifying signal about the government's commitment to excellence that would be inspiring to young people considering public service.

Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997, is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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