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The Best and the Brightest and Government Service?

Bradley Martin

David Ewing Duncans’ piece entitled “Why Do Our Best and Brightest End Up in Silicon Valley and Not In D.C.?” in The Atlantic on May 6, 2012, is inaccurate and off base. As explained in the article, there is a perception that the best and brightest are headed to Silicon Valley because they want to solve public policy problems. This ignores the reality that many of the best and brightest are entering public service, though not traditional government work. The article briefly notes the politics versus administration dichotomy attributed to Woodrow Wilson which is familiar to public administration students and scholars.  Unfortunately, the rancorous nature of our current political climate distracts from the central prohibition preventing the best and brightest from entering government service, anachronistic hiring practices.  The recent finalized rules regarding the Federal government Pathways Program should improve the hiring of new recruits.

In contrast to the article, I am of the opinion that many of our nations’ best and brightest are choosing positions in public service. However, not all of the positions are in government, many of the best and brightest are choosing to create their own non-profit groups, social entrepreneurial groups, or work with private companies that provide services to government agencies. Many Americans graduating from its’ top universities still choose careers and positions in the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Executive Office of the President, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the military, and hold many policy and planning positions in cities and state capitals across the country. In particular, many of the best and brightest have begun careers in government through the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) Program.

Many members of the Millenial Generation, who remain uniquely pre-disposed to public service are concerned about the numerous problems facing the United States. The article seems to ignore the importance of non-profit groups and social entrepreneurial groups. Groups such as Teach for America have done a tremendous job recruiting individuals to enter public service and provide a growing challenge to hiring the best and brightest.  What is the difference between companies such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft and the government agencies?  Is it the dedication of its workers?  Education?  No, according to many studies, government workers have higher levels of education.  So what is the primary difference?  Private companies have agile hiring mechanisms that hire for potential, growth, and agility whereas government agencies hire for specialized experience and immediate needs.  Private companies sometimes have pre-existing relationships with colleges and professors where students can be interviewed, whereas the primary recruiting tool for the Federal government is the ubiquitous USAJOBS.gov website. Applicants applying to many federal government positions can wait months before finding a result. Additionally, students are placed into pools where other applicants have veterans preference points and most likely far more experience than the student.  Human resources specialists are often burdened with out dated technology and crushing application volumes, therefore little one on one attention can be provided.

Many private companies are characterized with hiring systems that hire based on potential and finding employees to help improve an outcome at a company.  Public agencies, who are constrained by burdensome human resources and government procedures are characterized by hiring processes, not by outcomes.  As one federal human resources official told me, often the best person for the job is not picked, but the person who can best navigate the hoops to jump through and the key words to use in a USAJOBS.gov resume.  In essence the hiring process for the federal government is to hire the person who was dedicated enough to work within the government bureaucratic rules, not the most capable or best applicant.

In my own personal experience, I was rated as a Health and Human Services Emerging Leaders Finalist in 2010.  After going to the job fair, I was not selected for a position.  A few months later I received a call that I was to be interviewed for a position in Health and Human Services. I immediately inquired about the position.  Unfortunately, I could not gain information on the position from Human Resources or the executive assistant for the position. In essence I was flying blind to an interview in Washington D.C.  I had a vague notion of why I was being interviewed, since I was a HHS Emerging Leaders Finalist, but I did not have specific information. The interview went well, but I was not hired as the Federal Career Intern Program was abolished by the Merit Systems Protection Board.  Other candidates for federal positions get calls several weeks or months after applying.  The Obama administration has made great strides in improving the speed at which to hire new recruits. Unfortunately, many of these new hires are not sticking around government.

Speaking as a member of the so called millennial generation, I do not believe the uncivil political climate will dissuade members of my generation from entering government service. After attending conferences on college campuses, I am amazed at how many students remain interested in public service, and in particular government service. Members of my generation who are on the receiving end of record levels of unemployment, as well as student loan and credit card debt represent a talented group of technology savvy, energetic, and idealistic people who are ready to find solutions and fix problems.  The biggest hurdles to them are a terrible economy where few companies and government agencies are hiring and an inefficient and outdated process oriented federal hiring process.

The decision by the Obama administration to consolidate many federal internships, temporary student programs, and co-ops into the new Pathways Program which is composed of three distinct types of programs should pay dividends. The Pathways Program offers an opportunity for the Federal government to hire more students. This will provide a more diverse applicant pool that will continue to provide our Federal government with many talented individuals from the government, private, educational, and non-profit sector. Let us hope the new program allows a more diverse and more representative federal government composed of the best and brightest that aims to find innovative solutions to fix America’s many public policy problems.

Bradley Martin is currently a graduate student enrolled in the Master of Security Studies Program at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.  He graduated in 2006 with his Master of Public Administration degree from Georgia Southern University. Email: [email protected]

If you would like to Blog for PA TIMES Online, contact Editor Christine Jewett McCrehin at [email protected].

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One Response to The Best and the Brightest and Government Service?

  1. Sara Wells Reply

    June 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    I totally agree with Mr. Martin in that there are plenty of members within the millenial generation that are seeking positions in public service. However, I feel that a lot of people in the millenial generation are not necessarily seeking public service positions because they feel “called into public service”. Ask many people who are public servants and they will tell you it was the only place/position where they could find employment. Unfortunately, with the job climate the way that it is today, many people see public service as the “safe” place to get a job instead of making public service their career.

    I do agree with Mr. Martin’s statement that the federal hiring system is flawed. When one watches documentaries/news programs about google, facebook, or other Silicon Valley based companies, they will be the first to tell you that a good company needs to hire for the future, not just now-meaning that you need to look at the vision that your company has for 5, 10, 20 years down the line and hire the best and brightest to help you reach that potential. The federal government in contrast is most definately not hiring for the future, but is perpetually stuck in the present or even the past because of their archaic hiring practices and the dreaded “points system”, and due to the nature of federal government, a lack of vision for the future, because they can only truly look 4-8 years down the line.

    I really enjoyed Mr. Martin’s introductory analysis of this topic and look forward to possible future articles/blogs on the subject of Millenials in the public sector.

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