ELLWOOD: Attracting visionaries


American ingenuity is fueled by eager, talented young people who bring new ideas, boundless energy and fresh thinking to the table.

Picture Bill Gates in his Seattle garage 30 years ago developing the early version of the personal computer. Innovation is the key driver of our global leadership, and it is through the dedicated efforts of people of vision, inspiration and wisdom that we can confront and overcome our pressing global challenges - if we can attract a new generation of talent to the public sector.

Ironically, at the very moment when we need the very best people and their ideas in Washington, we face a mass exodus. With nearly a third of our midlevel and upper-level senior government officials due to retire in the near term, the federal government faces a serious people problem that it must address now.

Miraculously, the combination of a weakened private job market, massive public challenges and an inspirational new president provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-establish government service as a noble and respected vocation, one that will attract the most talented and dedicated young people.

Suddenly, it seems, people are beating down the doors of federal agencies. However, without transformational changes in the way we hire, support and promote our public servants, this moment will pass, and government’s talent decline will continue.

For years, too many of our most accomplished students graduating from institutions such as Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government as well as from other professional and science schools who might consider government service instead have looked for the brighter promise (and big money) of the private sector. They seek opportunities where they can make a difference in the world and can effect change for the public good, yet they choose to do so outside the sphere of Washington.

They report that they weren’t recruited by the federal agencies in which they were most interested or that they could not accept a low-salary offer for a position with seemingly limited mobility and still pay for their education. Even those inclined to government service must choose between a firm job offer from a consulting firm or a lengthy government hiring process that might go nowhere.

Creating transformational change to enhance the federal work force will not be easy, but here are several steps to consider:

• Provide more creative financial incentives - develop more loan products, fellowships and programs such as ROTC in which students would receive educational benefits in exchange for their commitment to serve in government after graduation.

• Enhance the government’s recruitment and hiring systems - boost efforts to draw more top graduates into government agencies and enact bold new processes to dramatically streamline the hiring process.

• Make government a career path worth taking - expand the range of opportunities for talented government workers in order to attract more midlevel professionals and retain high-performing employees with appropriate promotions and salary adjustments.

• Make it easier for talented professionals to move in and out of government - just as people move between jobs in the private sector.

• Improve public management - make long-term improvements to basic government operations a top priority, enhance transparency and improve labor-management feedback loops to improve morale and enhance team-building.

These are critical times that require the best to answer the call for public service. As we confront immense public problems - from the economic crisis to global climate disruption - it is imperative that we make the right investments to attract the most passionate, dedicated and talented young people into exciting and meaningful positions in the federal work force. Vision and innovation could become the hallmarks of government work.

David T. Ellwood is dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He was an assistant secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration.

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