Silver Linings Action Plan

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To solve the “quiet crisis” in the civil service, the federal government must improve workforce recruitment.

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There may be silver linings that come out of the longest government shutdown in history, but only if we work deliberately to make it so. Although the shutdown made starkly apparent the integral roles federal workers play in Americans’ lives every day, it simultaneously made evident that a career in the federal government does not currently guarantee a reliable paycheck. As Paul C. Light describes, the shutdown “produced iconic photos of furloughed employees standing in line at the food pantries, worrying about how to reconcile their checkbooks, and longing to get back to work.”

Why does this matter? Our nation is facing an urgent public sector workforce crisis. Governments at all levels are failing to recruit the next generation of public servants. While one-quarter of the private sector workforce is under the age of thirty, only six percent of the federal government workforce is; fewer than three percent of the federal IT workforce is under thirty. Although the federal government expects a doubling of the proportion of its workforce eligible to retire in the next five years, creating numerous opportunities for rapid career advancement, agencies struggle to emerge as an employer of choice for young people, despite a strong generational inclination toward service. Some of the challenges are, undoubtedly, a function of structural challenges in the hiring process. However, much is also owing to the inability of government to fully showcase its range of employment opportunities in ways that resonate with this rising generation of leaders.

Effectively managing this generational transition is imperative. The government must find fresh, innovative strategies for recruiting our nation’s deep bench of talent. Otherwise, the federal government’s ability to deliver on its critical missions is at risk. States and cities face the same dangerous situation. Paul Light is right when he states that there is a “need to rebuild the public service as a career destination of choice” for young people. Encouraging our most thoughtful and accomplished young people to heed the call of public service requires hard work, creative solutions, and purposeful collaboration between people from all sectors of our society.

At the Volcker Alliance, we are working every day to tackle this challenge. The Volcker Alliance envisions a public sector workforce with the experience, preparation, and commitment to ensure that government is accountable and delivers with excellence. We believe that partnerships between universities and government at all levels—federal, state, and local—can generate substantial benefits in helping our nation to address the complex, urgent public sector workforce challenges we face.

Through our Government-to-University Initiative (“G2U”), the Alliance is building regional networks of governments and universities to sustainably connect governments’ human capital needs with local university capacity. Over the next several months, the Alliance is assembling an inaugural cohort of three to five “G2U Regional Councils.” We expect each will be uniquely positioned to pursue projects that smooth the pathway from universities into public employment and ensure that educational institutions have strong insight into the skills most critical to meeting federal agencies’ missions.

G2U is well underway in the Kansas City region, and we are extremely encouraged by early progress there. Priority projects include:

  • Development of a centralized job portal that aggregates all federal, state, and local government job postings to increase awareness of and access to public sector careers among job seekers;
  • Completion of a detailed economic and labor market analysis of government employment in the Kansas City region, which government and university stakeholders will use to confirm public sector workforce development priorities and implement an action plan to recruit top talent where there is the greatest need; and
  • Creation of a regional data academy to implement a robust training curriculum around data use and management for government practitioners, with the goal of bringing government data use into the twenty-first century.

In addition, as a large cohort of lifelong public servants nears retirement and public trust in government declines, our nation needs public sector leaders who are engaged, agile, innovative, and effective in the face of rapid, and often incalculable, change. The nature of work is rapidly changing. The time is now to design innovative educational experiences that prepare current and future public servants to tackle contemporary policy challenges.

The Alliance is supporting the efforts of a select group of deans from our nation’s leading public affairs schools who are collaborating to design a fresh, nimble approach to public service education. The deans aspire to deliver a new educational experience that prepares students to be civic sector leaders who can apply their knowledge and skills to solve the formidable public problems of our time. They also aim to make skill-building and training available to a wider audience, including active government practitioners and curious citizens across all facets of our democracy.

At the Alliance, we know that we do not have all the answers and we know that there are problems with the reputation of government and its ability to attract the best and brightest into public service that are beyond our control. We cannot stop politicians from bashing public servants. We cannot force better compensation for those who serve us by fighting fires, teaching our children, protecting our water, air, food, and medicines, and undertaking all the other responsibilities of government from which we all benefit.

We certainly cannot ensure there will not be another government shutdown. But by working together with local, state, and federal governments, universities, and other interested civic and private sector stakeholders, we can inspire more of the already service-minded students of today and tomorrow to consider public service as a valuable and important career path. The Volcker Alliance is eager to contribute to solutions to the public sector workforce crisis and to do so before it is too late.

Sara Mogulescu

Sara Mogulescu is the executive vice president at The Volcker Alliance.

This essay is part of a five-part series, entitled What the Shutdown Revealed About the Value of Public Service.