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Government Reinvention or Volunteers Willing to Serve?

unclesam2-314x350It seems everyone is trying to solve problems of government, including the politicians, but gridlock and partisanship appear to win out more and more, creating stalemate.

The media and polls regularly report on the feelings of the American people who display less trust in government, and maybe even more important to public administrators is the public’s failing confidence in the ability of government to simply govern.

A recent USA TODAY/Bipartisan Policy Center poll provides a different slant to how Americans feel. In fact, it may just be the American spirit that inspires many to want to contribute, serve and affect change. An outcome of the poll supports the continued public sentiment that government is not able to get things done, but that Americans, particularly younger Americans, believe nonprofits are a better means to solve problems and affect positive change.

As a public administrator, I have thought about the results of this segment of the poll and pondered how government could align itself with nonprofits (not exactly a thesis because the topic not only has plenty of academic study, but practical application at all levels of government). I initially thought of the success of the Corporation for National and Community Service, but something from the results of the poll seemed to be missing, an attraction to volunteer service and an organizational structure that produces results aligned neatly with governmental responsibility. An epiphany followed; I already knew the answer. I volunteer with a government entity, not exactly a nonprofit, but an instrumentality of the United States – the U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. The Coast Guard Auxiliary is a nonmilitary organization administered by the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

If history proves anything it’s that the Auxiliary has successfully evolved and adapted over time. When Congress amended the law in 1941 reorganizing the civilian section, these men and women joined the war effort as our country entered World War II. Was this government re-inventing itself or was it volunteers who valued public service and were willing to serve? This is a difficult question to answer because people are more patriotic when their nation and security are threatened, thus more willing to support a cause.

However, the Coast Guard Auxiliary may still be a model for what Americans want from government; the ability for our best and brightest to serve their country, but independent enough to do so as volunteers, while serving the public interest.

“Strengthening the Federal Workforce” was one of the Memos to National Leaders, part of the series published by the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Society for Public Administration, for the 2012 Presidential transition. Along with PA TIMES, the series of memos explored “critical challenges,” however one question we should consider is what the makeup of our “workforce” should represent.

With sequestration effecting each level of government, and subsequently providers of public programs and services, we should acknowledge a greater need to collaborate and partner with other organizations (again this is not necessarily a thesis because much has been studied in this area). However, the success of the Coast Guard Auxiliary aligned with and performing many of the missions of the Coast Guard is an example of government leveraging volunteers in a meaningful way to fulfill a mission of government. In 2013, the Auxiliary volunteers devoted more than 4.2 million hours, taught more than 14,000 boating safety classes, performed more than 120,000 vessel safety checks on recreational boats and commercial fishing vessels, and delivered boating safety information to more than 98,000 marine supply stores and boating safety partners. Admiral Bob Papp, Commandant of the Coast Guard said, “I could not be prouder of our Coast Guard Auxiliary,” in his acknowledgement of the Auxiliary’s 74th anniversary.

Can we better position the federal workforce by thinking about embedding volunteers in certain segments of our government especially with 60 percent of the federal workforce expected to retire during this administration? Debate would certainly ensue concerning the replacement of volunteers with full-time workers, but the results of the USA TODAY/Bipartisan Policy Center poll, spirit of service and success of the Coast Guard Auxiliary in complimenting their active duty is an example that should be considered.

In another example, the U.S. Justice Department recently posted jobs, “unpaid positions,” for attorneys to serve one-year appointments as assistant U.S. attorneys partly because of staff reductions of 2,500 people since 2011.

Whether government re-invents itself or more people choose to serve, volunteers will continue to serve directly in all levels of government. Public administrators should be prepared to think about what the future government workforce will look like as we enter the second year of sequestration. Organizations like the Corporation for National and Community Service will continue to support change in our communities, but the Coast Guard Auxiliary may very well offer an example of what our future government workforce could represent.


Author: ASPA member Craig C. Hall, MPA, is an associate faculty member for the University of Phoenix and deputy director/CFO for a state agency in Massachusetts.


Image courtesy of http://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/thegreengrok/carbon-tax-chatter/.

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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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