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What May Strengthen the Federal Workforce

On January 20, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous and inspirational inaugural address in which he implored Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Federal Employment Reports from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management support the claim that Americans heeded his call: from 1962 to 1969, the federal workforce averaged 5,820,875 employees. However, something changed over the years, and from 2004 to 2011, the federal workforce dwindled to an average of only 4,258,375 employees despite the nation’s increasing population. People are not drawn to government employment like they once were. To strengthen the federal workforce, it is important to first understand what deters people’s interest in working for the government, and then to redress those grievances.

In the years following President Kennedy’s inaugural address, people were arguably more intrinsically motivated towards government jobs out of a desire to serve the public, a belief that they could make a difference and a sense of duty to their country. As explained in Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, intrinsically motivated people are generally more productive, engaged and committed to their work than extrinsically motivated people who require if-then motivators, which, incidentally, “always grow more expensive,” according to Pink. Dennis Cauchon discusses this idea in his USA Today article entitled, “Federal Workers Earning Double their Private Counterparts,” wherein he highlights the fact that federal civil servants receive more than double the wages and benefits as the average worker in a comparable job in the private sector. The theory that so many people are opting for employment outside of the federal workforce due to extrinsically motivating factors, then, is questionable.

Furthermore, another USA Today article by Susan Page entitled, “Poll: Public Service Valued; Politics – not so Much,” shows that many people currently view politics as corrupt and as being more about power than helping or serving others. Nevertheless, Americans in general still have a desire to serve their communities, but they now believe by a margin of more than 2-1 that “the best way to make positive changes in society is through volunteer organizations and charities.” The key, then, to strengthening the federal workforce is not to focus on offering better extrinsic motivators, such as the highest wages, but in changing people’s perception of government and connecting with their intrinsic desires.

One solution to improving the public’s perception of the government workforce can be gleaned from the 2012 Olympics. Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2012 contains an article by Lizzy Stallard entitled, “Brand Humanity of Olympic Proportions,” which states that the most successful commercials in connecting with viewers were the ones that were positive, motivational and focused on the human spirit rather than human power. Whereas politics are currently viewed by many as “vicious and nasty,” according to Page in USA Today, federal employers should instead seek to emphasize the positive aspects of working for the government in order to improve the public’s perception and thereby better succeed in attracting top talent to the federal workforce.

Lee Bolman and Terrence Deals assert in their book, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, that most chief executive officers “focus on where and how to compete [but] they would be better off focusing on organizational design.” The same holds true for the complicated organizational design of federal agencies. According to a report by the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Company entitled, “Building the Leadership Bench: Developing a Talent Pipeline for the SES,” federal agencies lack cohesion and have “little central oversight or accountability.” For instance, career ladders are assigned to each position, and movement is restrictive between the various career ladders. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Frequently Asked Questions: Employment, “positions within the Federal Government are classified by occupational series, grade or pay level, and pay plan.” Under this system, people working identical jobs may earn different incomes based on what General Schedule (GS) salary is assigned to each position. Consequently, workers are likely to develop a perception of social inequity, and eventually to look for employment elsewhere. As Joan Pynes stated in her book, Human Resources Management for Public and Nonprofit Organizations: A Strategic Approach, employees naturally tend to compare themselves to their co-workers, and “the perception of inequity creates an internal state of tension that the individual is motivated to reduce.”

Additionally, there is limited opportunity for promotions in the federal workforce. In other words, the organizational design of federal agencies could easily be mistaken for a caste system wherein upward social mobility is restricted, and people are precluded from living out the American dream. The Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Company state in their report “Building the Leadership Bench: Developing a Talent Pipeline for the SES,” that from 2002 to 2012, just 1.4 percent of employees in GS-13 to GS-15 positions were promoted to the successive position – the senior executive service. Thus, the limited opportunity for upward social mobility compounds the problem of the perception of social inequity when trying to retain top talent.

As the average number of federal employees continues to wane, it is clear that the current strategies are not working and that agencies must begin working on new solutions to strengthen the federal workforce. While there are arguably numerous other factors contributing to the decreasing federal workforce than what has been mentioned here, the following solutions may help to overcome some of the principle objections that people tend to have regarding federal employment:

  • Emphasize the positive aspects of working for the government and promote intrinsic motivators to attract more committed employees.
  • Improve the organizational design and the payment formula through the creation of a single cohesive strategy to minimize the perception of social inequity.
  • Create more opportunities for upward social mobility by eliminating the restrictions associated with career ladders.

Regardless of the actions that are ultimately taken to strengthen the federal workforce, it should be remembered that for any plan to be successful, it must begin with self-change. As the renowned theoretical physicist Albert Einstein reasoned, problems cannot be solved on the same level on which they are posed, nor should people continue to repeat the same thing over again and expect different results. Leaders must instead change their perspective and their approach.


Author: Michael D. Clark is a student in Villanova University’s Master of Public Administration program. He also works as the Chief Operating Officer of Atlas Marketing Management. To contact, send an email to [email protected]

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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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