Kelman: Young workers like some rules

Although government faces serious challenges in recruiting a new generation of young people into public service, I believe a bigger challenge will be retaining them after they’ve been hired.

To be sure, we can’t expect the typical member of the latest generation to serve a lifetime in one workplace, the way many people in past generations did. Employees today expect to move around.

But we want government to be an attractive enough workplace that talented, motivated young people do not leave prematurely or sour on a federal career after one brief try.

I am concerned that government’s biggest problem in retaining young people will be excessive bureaucracy. It ensnares young employees in rules and hinders their ability to take initiative, use their brains and attain a feeling of accomplishment. That is what today’s well-educated kids look for in a job.

I have a session in my public management class for master’s degree students that covers the pros and cons of designing an organization around lots of rules or standard operating procedures. Our discussion of those issues this year provides some insights for federal managers.

Let’s start with the good news. Based on their previous job experiences, many students approved of the idea of giving employees, especially new ones, information about techniques that are helpful in performing a job. I illustrate this point by pointing to the directions on a package of Betty Crocker brownies. Instead of saying, “Here’s the mix — you figure out how to bake it,” the package tells us where to set the oven temperature, the ingredients we need to add and how long the brownies should cook.

In a vote, most students said they wished their previous jobs had provided them with more such rules. Fewer students said their previous jobs had provided too many rules. However, they noted that pointers designed to help people do their jobs should be presented as guidelines, not as binding commands.

Rules are also good for telling people what not to do — in particular, what boundaries of ethics, integrity and law may not be crossed. One student who had worked at the State Department said she liked the fact that the organization’s rules were limited to that, giving employees considerable freedom to decide how best to do their jobs.

The students were critical of situations in which they felt the rules expressed distrust of them or sent the message to simply do as they were told. One student said she lost her motivation and eventually quit a job at a nonprofit organization after being admonished to stick to the rules and not try ideas on her own. Another student told of a similar experience at a large private company.

So the problem is not unique to government. But I suspect it is worse in government, and that is why the caution and increasing reliance on rules that Washington’s fear industry encourages is such bad news for good government.

Kelman ( is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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