Let young workers make a difference

Paul Light


Bob Moon: Run down Fortune Magazine's latest list of the nation's best employers and you'll come across new economy names including Google, several top law firms and even companies from the troubled financial sector, such as Goldman Sachs.

But nowhere on that list will you find the federal government.

Commentator and public policy expert Paul Light says if federal agencies want to compete for the best young talent, they need to try harder.

Paul Light: Federal recruiters have their work cut out for them as the Millennials flood the job market over the next few years. This generation sees the federal government as a destination of last resort.

The problem is the federal bureaucracy itself. The Millennials want meaningful work, but don't believe the federal government will provide it.

The frustrations begin at the top, where the federal bureaucracy is led by 3,000 political appointees who rarely inspire awe. The good ones give up early and the bad ones get a "Good Job Brownie" and a promotion.

The bureaucratic sludge rolls its way downhill through layers of needless management and mind-numbing paperwork. There are dozens of rungs between the top and bottom of most agencies. This means that no one can be held accountable, not the aircraft groundings, toxic trailers or even bad tomatoes.

Yet Congress and the President continue to add more layers and outsource meaningful work. Meanwhile, red tape and cubicles reign supreme. It's like that cult movie, "Office Space." Better hang on to the stapler -- it may be the last one you'll ever see.

These problems cannot be fixed with tinkering. They demand a major overhaul. First: Flatten the bureaucracy. Get rid of programs that just don't work. Provide the training to do jobs well and cut the number of layers in half.

Most importantly, don't automatically replace the 600,000 baby boomers who will retire over the next decade. Instead, take a look at each job they leave and push the resources down to the front lines.

Until Congress and the President commit to the big overhaul, most federal jobs will go to applicants who want a secure paycheck, not the chance to make a difference, and with that kind of motivation, it's only a matter of time before the next disaster.

Moon: Paul Light is a Professor at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. He's the author of "A Government Ill Executed."

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First of all, the talent in the workforce is in the experienced ones, not the the nubies, as much as that sells headlines. The US sucks for creating job roles that reward talent, and so the good ones leave, not just the govt, but big biz also.

I think Paul is getting us focused on an important issue, but I think he is dead wrong about the bureacracy. I have found the private sector fully capable of the same problems, but enjoy advantages that the govt can not use, and then folks forget when the govt works better than private and discount it by saying it was never the private sector's responsibility.

As a current govt contractor and former civil servant, I have found fast-track project money jobs very poorly administered and if you are not getting fat off them then you are getting burned by them. There is nothing wrong with having layers of planning and division of labor in a govt, but we pass laws, add obligations to the govt and then do not fund or monitor, so that each layer is dysfunctional. And then people blame the system. Political appointees would not be able to influence as much if those below stood up to unrealistic budgets and compliance obligations. Most back down, keep their jobs and pass on the lies and responsibilities as best they can.

I have found that big organizations, public or private, suffer from this same problem and are not good at holding onto talent and I feel that my skills and experience are best rewarded currently by small growing businesses, they have the size and demand to recognize talent. In my field, a lot of small companies get sold right after their talent has moved on.

I am a 'millennial' who just completed my first year of work with the federal government. My decision to work for the feds was based upon three main points: job security, flexibility in location, and variety of work available. In my profession, the federal government employs around 40% of the total workforce in over 100 locations nationwide. The paperwork is utterly ridiculous however the value of high retention rates in a downward spiraling economy, and many opportunities for advancement overcome the annoyances of bureaucracy.

You've heard of the Golden Rule? He who has the Gold makes the Rule. That would be private enterprise. And that is what draws some of us to public service...the desire and ability and environment in which to be able to make a difference. To say the best and the brightest reject government service is hogwash. Not all people wish to kneel at the altar of the almighty dollar.

I am disgusted at how the Bush administration has gutted government agencies of funding, people, and relevant goals in their never-ending quest to cut federal spending regardless of the outcome. There is a place in public service for young people who want to make a difference in our country....after the Bushies leave.

I couldn’t disagree with you more. As a fisheries biologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Elko, Nevada for more than 20 years, I have had the incredible fortune to be a part of restoration of hundreds of thousands of acres of public and private lands including critical wildlife habitats. On our district, individuals have played key roles in bringing together industry, conservation and agency partners to make a real and visible difference on the land. Our motivation is our passion for the land and the opportunity working for the federal government provides to change landscapes. We have the financial, technical and logistical resources to make a difference and we have the mandate. I am well aware of the frustrations dealing with government bureaucracy can impose, but I truly believe I could never have found the level of freedom and satisfaction I currently enjoy had I pursued a career in private industry.

In my career I had a chance to work for the Sourth Korean, Russian, Australian, and US governments. I assure you that the US government is the most efficent out of those.
Regarding a point about making a difference. Ultimately it is about you doing your job right and not going with the flow (that is widespread in both public and private sectors). In the private sector there is a "stick" to make your perform - in the public sector it is about your conscience (we are adulst, right?) There are five billion of us on the planet - everybody cannot become a president or a CEO.

I agree with Paul Light that the number of political paybacks in the form of do-nothing agency positions should be scaled back. But, his premises that “…most federal jobs will go to applicants who want a secure paycheck, not the chance to make a difference…”, is misguided. There are always sections of any organization public or private that are less efficient than others, and the federal government is no different however, during my 15 years of both public and private experience there is not a better to make a difference if you want to than in the federal government.

I agree with this story, having recently graduated from college, I strongly considered a job in the Federal Gov't, but ultimately decided for private industry because I felt I could make a bigger difference. I plan to reapply to the government when I'm thinking more about retirement than experience.

Paul is absolutely right about soul crushing organizations. Having worked for the feds for 29 years in 3 different agencies, I continuously find my work held up, slowed down and generally rendered ineffective by layers of bureaucracy that want to preserve hoops and protect jobs. A 10 minute task in industry takes us in government 10 weeks or 10 months. But then , I guess its not all that bad , as I am looking forward to my nice inflation indexed pension.
Adios taxpayers!

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