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Changing the Federal Culture

RecruitmentThe federal government puts a significant amount of effort into recruiting qualified candidates from across the country. And why shouldn’t it? If we can get the best and brightest to contribute to our government, we will build the strongest, most efficient workforce possible. This will, in turn, strengthen the country overall. However, unlike large firms that utilize similar practices, the federal government has continually come up short. Further, the output of the federal government is lacking. Most major breakthroughs, whether technological, medical, scientific or otherwise, don’t come from within the government. The majority are results of private citizens, companies and organizations operating outside of the sphere of government. But, why? The answer is two fold. First, the federal government does a poor job of recruiting the most inventive, ingenious, passionate individuals to join their teams. Second, they fail to motivate those they do manage to hire, providing limited opportunities for innovation and growth.

In its recruitment efforts, the federal government has focused primarily on a few specific strategies. First, many agencies send recruiters to universities to speak to students directly. However, unlike recruiters from large consulting firms, on campus government recruiters often don’t have actual vacancies to fill. Recently, federal agencies have also pushed to utilize social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. However, these are likely to go unnoticed. The only people who tend to follow federal agencies’ social media pages are those already working for them or a small subset of people with express interests in working for that agency. Third, salaries, benefits and job security incentives have been improved to incentivize potential employees to make a career out of federal employment. But the federal government is never going to be able to keep up with pay scales of corporations, and will not be able to attract those who view employment solely as a means to accruing wealth. Lastly, the government has tried to make it easier to seek employment in the first place by creating USAJobs, a one-stop, online federal jobs database. While the unwieldy website undoubtedly needs improvements and the hiring process needs streamlining, an inability to search federal jobs on the Internet is not the main obstacle.

The main issue is that the current initiatives are ineffective, as they aren’t addressing the principal problems. People, especially young people, don’t want to work for the federal government. This is because the federal government has increasingly failed to foster a culture that is attractive to America’s up and coming talent. What’s more, this failure has occurred on several levels. First, is the culture of the workplace. The green spaces, slides and gourmet coffee bars at Google-esque companies, which are meant to foster the health and creativity of its employees, make the cubicles and gray walls of government offices entirely unappealing. But the space is not the only impediment. If not more stifling is the strict bureaucratic hierarchy that requires mountains of paperwork to make even small changes. The combination of space and environment means that not only do young adults not want to go to work in a stuffy, bureaucratic-laden office, but when they do end up there, their creativity and productivity is halted.

The other level of culture that must be addressed if the federal government wants to be attractive is the overall mission. Arianna Huffington recently gave a speech in which she referenced the founding fathers’ affirmation of the pursuit of happiness. She went on to say that the happiness they were referring to was “the happiness that comes from feeling good by doing good.” That still holds true today. People haven’t lost their commitment to public service. Just look at the prevalence and size of many nonprofit organizations, or even the popularity of the Peace Corps, an outlier in the federal world. The problem is that working for the federal government is no longer considered by many to be public service. The more I speak with students, the more I realize how disillusioned they are with what happens within the federal government. Recent events, such as sequestration and revelations about the NSA’s collection of data records, have left people with conflicted thoughts about the government. They feel that the government is ineffective and often focused on things that are not directly relevant to the public interest.

These problems do not have easy fixes. But, if the federal government really wants to recruit motivated, skilled individuals who can actually make a difference, it has to address the core issues. It has to change its image, and more importantly, its culture, both that of the workplace and its mission. These changes don’t have to be immediate and sweeping, but making moves in the right direction is an important first step. It is unrealistic to think every government office will have iPads, couches and espresso bars. However, moving towards a less managerial culture that fosters outside-of-the-box thinking and creative problem solving is a major step in the right direction. Then maybe the Facebook and Twitter campaigns might have some merit. Lastly, the federal government needs to return to a focus of service. This is perhaps the most difficult prospect of all, but unless the government can shed some of its untrusting, surveillance-state image, it will never move back to being considered part of the public service. This must come from the top-down. Agencies need to revamp the way they handle themselves and some of the things that happen under their purview. If the federal government can make this shift then it stands a fighting chance of recruiting brighter, more passionate employees who are actually committed to making a difference and capable of carrying out the steps to do so.


Author: Jesse Zimmerman is a graduate student at the University of Georgia working towards a Master of Public Administration degree.  


Image courtesy of http://fcsl.edu/blogs/gpi/2010/08/30/the-federal-government-minority-recruiting/.

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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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