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21st Century Public Service – Not For Everyone

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Carol McCreary-Maddox

In 2009 Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. His first battle was with his security detail over his BlackBerry. He won and he became the first president to be connected by email. That victory heralded a new age for the federal workforce and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) became the president’s banner bearer for a new vision:  the federal government will become America’s model employer for the 21st century. OPM’s mission is to recruit, retain and honor a world-class workforce to serve the American people.

What are the skill sets for workers of the 21st century?

mccreary aprilBoomers and millenials alike believe those skills to be technology based. The skill sets include more than being able to use a computer or tablet and accessing the Internet. The employee is not likely to file paper, but he/she will manage records digitally. Data are stored digitally sometimes on a thumb drive, or some other external peripheral, or perhaps in the cloud. Big data must be chunked, analyzed, reported and synthesized quickly in order to make timely decisions. Many decisions (recommendations and alternatives) are being determined at lower organization levels.

Communications take place via email, chat, Skype, Facetime or teleconference. Such meetings are no longer anchored to one fixed place – as the conveners and attendants are likely working from different locations and varied time zones. The 21st century skill set is more a mindset. According to Donna Harris, co-founder of 1776 – a hub in downtown Washington, mobilized to support startups, “[people] who excel in the new economy are not the ones who follow instructions handed down in rigid, hierarchical fashion, but the ones who test new ideas with peers fluidly across the world.” 21st century workers are innovators; they work in the open, collaboratively and with transparency.

Because workers are no longer tied to one location, teleworkers often work from home reporting to the office perhaps one or two days per week. As a result, it is no longer necessary to assign an office space or phone to a single worker. Some agencies are using the concept of “hoteling” to accommodate their transient employees who “check-in” are assigned a workspace and a laptop with a telecommunication portal. At the end of their work period, the employee checks out and it is made available to employees. Currently, the Government Accountability Office, the General Services Administration, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Department of Homeland Security, the Agriculture Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are experimenting with alternative work schedules, telework and hoteling.

What are the challenges to establishing and managing a 21st century workforce?

First, management resistance remains the single greatest challenge to telework participation. (See OPM’s 2013 Status of Telework in the Federal Government Report to Congress.) The resistance may be due to several factors:

  • An inability to manage employees at a distance.
  • A lack of trust that the employee will complete the task and not charge for hours not worked.
  • A custom of managing inputs rather than outputs and outcomes.

Resistance may also be due to the fact that some of the workforce lacks the capacity for self-direction, analysis and decision-making. Until recently, managers did not expect these traits from the workforce and trained their employees to only follow directions. The workforce of yesterday is very different from the workforce of today. Demographic data show from 2012 that 26 percent of the federal workforce holds a high school degree or no high school. Twenty-five percent have had some college; 27 percent hold a college degree and 22 percent of the federal workforce holds an advanced degree. Almost half the workforce is college educated.

In January 2014, The Washington Post reported that clerical jobs, which at one point represented 75 percent of the federal workforce, were verging on extinction. Today there are only 87,153 clerical jobs – only 4 percent of the current federal workforce. The Post also noted that the federal government had shed 40,000 clerical jobs over the past eight years.

Recently, I delivered basic statistics training to some women whose work requirements were changing. It was clear that they were transitioning from clerical/administrative positions to program and management analyst positions. What I noted was the clear capacity to collect data, produce tables and reports that were beautifully formatted. It was also clear that the skills to analyze that data and isolate factors that would have some import for decision makers was very limited. Though the reports seemed beautiful, they lacked substance.

The effort to transform the federal government into a model 21st century workplace is moving forward. I predict that it will move forward without some of the people that they had steadfastly relied upon in earlier years. Managers will need to learn to lead – not direct — a very different workforce – one that is capable of innovation and decision-making. New rules for development and new parameters for productivity are necessary.


Author: Carol McCreary-Maddox is a doctoral candidate in the School for Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate Institute. After a 10-year tenure as an administrative officer for two high profile investigations into executive branch malfeasance, she began a career as a trainer and consultant. It has been a life-long challenge for her to help varied and diverse groups to value the differences but bridge the divides.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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