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To Change the World, Become a Bureaucrat (Or Better Yet, a Herocrat)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Allison Bell
May 3, 2024

Research shows that many people in Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2010, are seeking careers with a higher purpose of making society and the planet better. As the most racially diverse generation, they recognize the value of diversity and seek to advance equity in all its forms. And while every generation has its share of do-gooders, what may be distinctive about Gen Z is the degree to which they see government playing a role in solving societal problems.

I know there is no one right career path to advance equity and justice. We need people working in every sector, and in every organizational nook and cranny, to make it happen. Activism, philanthropy and electoral politics are common career paths for people who want to go beyond helping individuals and get into changing systems.

Here’s my contention: public service is a career with one of the highest potentials to change systems. And it’s also one of the most overlooked. Given Gen Z’s passion for social change and views on the role of government, we have a huge collective opportunity. As Boomers retire and others cycle into other sectors, Gen Z can both change the face of government and make our systems more equitable in the process.

But how can individual public servants change systems? Alone, they can’t. As I argue in “Herocrats: A Guide for Government Workers Leading Change,” leveraging the three C’s can spark systemic changes that lead to greater justice and equity: connection, courage and creativity. Even an entry-level public servant in a temporary role can use these three attributes to make a system more equitable.

Here’s one good example: While he was a student at Temple University’s Master of Public Policy Program, Jordan Laslett served a summer as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Philadelphia. There he joined with other interns, including some in the Mayor’s Internship Program, to implement a career empowerment fair.

Over lunch one day, Jordan discovered that although he was receiving a stipend, his friends in the Mayor’s Internship Program were not. What’s more, they had no guarantee of a future job.

Jordan thought that all interns should be paid. He also recognized that those who were able to work for free were, in a sense, the lucky ones. How many people with less financial means were excluded from the program? At the end of the summer, when Jordan had finished his assigned project with a few weeks to spare, he asked his intern friends if they would support him if he were to make a public case that all interns should be paid. They agreed.  

So, Jordan began preparing a surprise presentation at the big end-of-the-summer event. Though he worried that making a scene there could diminish his chances of beginning a career with the city, he pressed forward. He passed out surveys that asked the interns about their commutes, their expenses and so on. He did the math on what a paid internship program would cost.

When he was called up for his presentation on the big day, he asked the other interns to join him, and the room grew tense when they began to share their stories of working as unpaid interns. For an hour, in front of the city’s senior staff and the public, Jordan presented the data and argued that if the city wanted to live up to its progressive values, it needed to pay its interns.

The next day, his pitch was featured on the front page of Temple News. After that, other media picked up the story, and national advocacy organizations got involved. Within three months, the City of Philadelphia announced it would pay its interns—a decision that will have long-term impacts on the city workforce, and ultimately its residents.

I’ve been working in and with government agencies for over two decades now, so I know that things don’t always change as quickly as they did for Jordan. Sometimes the pace is excruciatingly slow, and the labor of moving it forward exhausting.

Yet public servants have so much potential to drive change. In addition to their superpowers of courage, connection and creativity, they have a great deal of structural power, especially in relation to elected officials, including:

  • Discretion in how they implement a law. Like everyone else, employees have specific skills, values and experiences that affect how they do their jobs.
  • Knowledge that gives an advantage over almost everyone else. They can use their understanding of statutory constraints and possibilities to drive opportunities.
  • Longevity in the system, especially in comparison to elected officials who are part-time and/or in short terms. Over time, public servants can string together multi-year stints in different organizations, or different positions, within the same system to create a powerful impact.

It’s time to update our mental model of bureaucrats and appreciate public service careers for the social justice vehicles that they are. While elected officials come and go, it’s the folks in management who get the work done. So, let’s celebrate and support the herocrats among us, and encourage others to follow in their path.

Author: Allison Bell is the CEO of Bellwether Consulting and the author of Herocrats: A Guide for Government Workers Leading Change. You can reach her at [email protected] and herocrats.com. This column was written under the auspices of Barrett and Greene, Inc.

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