Back to the future: Shutdowns and the next generation of feds

teamwork on puzzle (alphaspirit/ 

Editor's note: This article originally ran on Oct. 4, 2013, three days into the last government shutdown of significant duration.

Teachers of the next generation of federal employees are watching the partial government shutdown with trepidation about the future. While educators see a sense of mission among millennials who are preparing for government careers, obstacles to such careers are mounting.

"We want the best and the brightest to want to work for the federal government, and we are swimming against the current right now," said Daniel Gordon, associate dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University Law School.

The partial shutdown of the federal government is only the latest in a series of setbacks for federal workers that are tarnishing the government brand, including pay freezes, furloughs under sequestration and a ponderous, unwieldy human resources system that can be discouraging to would-be employees.

Traditionally, a career in government offered stability to employees, even though salaries at the entry level and senior executive level aren't competitive with the top ranks of the private sector. Don Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, thinks the era of this social contract may be coming to an end.

"Our students have always been willing to make the tradeoff in terms of starting salary, but it's difficult to take an additional risk of knowing if you're going to be paid at all," he said.

For federal workers who are trying to advance their careers with graduate education, the current situation is especially bleak. "My grad students – a lot of them are pissed," said Mark Rom, an associate professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. "Some of them are working and their jobs are immediately affected."

Private sector firms are taking advantage of instability in federal employment in their recruitment, according to Tim Higashi, a graduate student studying public affairs at George Mason University. When he was interviewing for jobs after graduation, he said recruiters warned him that the climate in Washington made a job with the federal government a dicey proposition. "It's such a 180-degree turn from the traditional rhetoric," he said.

Idealism is still driving young policy wonks. Dana Doran, an intern at the Partnership for Public Service, was raised in a family of news junkies, adored "The West Wing," and cut her teeth volunteering on political campaigns. But she's no longer convinced that government is her only career choice. "It's discouraging to see the shutdown and gridlock and what occasionally looks to me like petty behavior," she said. A non-profit like the Gates Foundation could provide opportunities for public service on par with what government has to offer, she said.

Government is going to have to find ways to entice talented millennials into federal employment, said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service. About 18 percent of the federal workforce is under the age 35, while 44 percent of feds are 50 and over. He sees a big retirement boom in the offing, one that could be accelerated if more experienced feds decide to move on because of pay freezes, budget cuts, and uncertainties about the future. "The people I talk to say we're not getting the quality of candidates they think they need, particularly at the PhD level," Palguta said.

Even qualified motivated young people are having problems getting through the door in the current climate, said Paul Posner, director of the Masters in Public Administration program at George Mason. "Some of our best students are having trouble getting jobs in the federal sector," Posner said.

Without the ongoing budget crisis, the federal government might have to make some accommodations for the millennial generation, even for the cohort that has made the decision to elect a career in public service. "Students really do want to make a difference, but they worry whether big institutions are nimble enough to allow them to make that difference," Kettl said. "Take that situation and compound it with the shutdown and other things that increase their cynicism, and those risks are conspiring to cause more and more students" to look elsewhere for employment.

Ultimately, the federal government won't have a problem filling seats. The difficulty for the government lies in attracting workers with skills coveted by the private sector, and not just warm bodies. Policy professors are concerned that the diminution of the federal brand will result in innovators and risk takers –even those with a strong interest in government – looking elsewhere for work.

In the procurement world, Gordon sees a "toxic environment where people are afraid to take any risk for fear of criticism." He links this situation to a decline in the quality of the work, as people operate defensively to avoid rebuke rather than seek to optimize spending of taxpayer dollars.

The only upside the academics see in the standoff is that it provides a rare teaching moment to explain the adversarial style that is built into the machinery of government.

"Congress was designed at the very beginning to maximize conflict and make it difficult to get things done," Kettl said. "Our founders did this on purpose, although not to try to create the kind of conflict that we see now."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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