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Are the Best and Brightest Attracted to Public Service?

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”  -Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy

peopleDuring the 1960s and 1970s, interest in public service was very high because people felt that they not only could make a difference, but that it was their duty to do so. Since then, times have changed and people began moving to jobs in the private sector for higher pay (Dowd, 2004). During the past decade, the New Public Management (NPM) movement has downplayed sectoral distinctions through its implicit suggestion that “management is management,” regardless of sector. As such, how important are these words viewed today in the realm of public service employment? When we apply these words to those contemplating becoming public servants, do we expect them to adopt this mantra? If we can overwhelmingly answer “No” to this question, then the question becomes, “Are the best and the brightest being attracted to the field of public service?” And, what are the recruitment and retention practices employed to ensure that the best and brightest are being recruited and having longevity in public service?

Organizations can use two broad types of recruiting techniques: formal and informal. Formal techniques employ a formal market intermediary between the firm and the prospective employee. Informal techniques use individuals who may include current employees, colleagues/associates at other firms, or colleagues in professional associations. Studies in sociology and economics often assume that low financial cost (relative to recruiting through formal techniques) is the primary reason that organizations use informal recruiting. Informal recruiting techniques do not cost companies advertising expenses, finder’s fees, and other search-related expenses. Formal recruiting is advantageous for organizations that seek to reach people in a variety of locations, as well as, increases the visibility of information in labor markets. Thus, the use of formal techniques should generate a larger pool of applicants than informal techniques. In addition, formal recruitment techniques better serve organizations that seek diversity in the applicant pool. (Mencken & Winfield, 1998) ExxonMobil, voted by Fortune 500 as one of the top 10 most successful organizations, employs formal and informal techniques as part of its hiring practices. As such, ExxonMobil would be a good choice to utilize the best practices methodology in identifying what successful organizations are doing to attain their success.

ExxonMobil focuses on developing a diverse workforce of highly talented individuals to help their business thrive. They use a long-term, career-oriented approach that begins with global recruitment of outstanding talent and continues with development from within through a wide range of assignments and experience. In 2011, presidents of the functional companies held more than 19 town-hall-style forums and numerous meetings with employees, addressing topics ranging from safety performance to long-term planning. Within these forums, employees had the opportunity to ask senior management questions on any topic of concern. Too, ExxonMobil’s recruitment and retention practices strongly incorporate striving to maximize their employee opportunities for success through training and development, maintaining a safe work environment enriched by diversity and characterized by open communication, trust, and fair treatment.

As noted by some authors, public sector organizations often are at a disadvantage when compared to the private sector in recruiting and staffing processes. The private sector typically outmatches the public sector on compensation, including bonuses and various other perks such as stock options (2007). In response to flight from government by officials who converted their knowledge into private sector expertise for higher pay, President Bush asserted, “Government should be an opportunity for public service, not private gain” (Wise, 2007). This statement leads one to consider intrinsic incentives, which include aspects related to the nature of one’s work, such as intellectual stimulation, creativity, and challenge; juxtaposed to extrinsic incentives, which include pay, bonuses, and time off of work. The theory of occupational choice suggests that people who value intrinsic rewards highly will seek employment in the sector that best fulfills that value. Now, we ask, what are the policies and practices employed to obtain the top talent in government? And, do these include some of the practices and policies previously discussed in this work, such as informal/formal recruitment and extrinsic/intrinsic incentives? To answer these questions, we identified some of the practices that should exist within the governmental recruitment and retention processes. These include:

  • Outreach through and relationships with professional organizations
  • Use of specialty websites, such as those supported or endorsed by professional organizations or particular schools
  • Internships that allow the engagement of individuals still in training or school prior to entering the workforce
  • Informal word-of-mouth networking and using current employers as recruiters
  • Offering bonuses to employees for locating “good” recruits
  • Diversity hiring
  • Incorporating training and development programs
  • Offering competitive benefit packages
  • Rebuilding student interest in public life by elevating the importance of civic education in primary and secondary school curricula and expanding community and national volunteer service opportunities and participation
  • Creating Presidential Public Service Scholarships for college or college bound students via a competitive selection process
  • Offering competitive pay
  • Promoting a culture of performance
  • Providing an environment that encourages progressive relations between political appointees and career executives (Ciglar, 1989).

While people are finding jobs, employers are finding people to fill them; and their behaviors, strategies, and purposes play a central, but often neglected role in the process of matching people to jobs (Mencken, 1998). Proponents of public service motivation put forth that individuals are drawn to careers in public service, primarily, by a unique set of altruistic motives such as wanting to serve the public interest, effect social change and shape the policies that affect society. This perspective views public service as a distinct profession or calling to which certain types of people are morally compelled. To this end we ask, is our government offering “what it takes” to recruit these individuals, and is our government answering the challenge by being an “employer of choice” and widely incorporating those measures necessary to recruit and retain these individuals in public service positions?


Author: Lolita D. Gray, Ph.D.


Image courtesy of http://www.sanjuancollege.edu/hr.

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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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