With public trust in the federal government approaching an all-time low and the government expecting a "talent drain" in the coming years, something needs to be done to change the public's perception of government and public service.
A survey released April 18 by the Pew Research Center found that just 22 percent of citizens believe they can trust the government in Washington "almost always or most of the time." Even more telling is the fact that 56 percent of those surveyed said they are "frustrated" and 21 percent "angry" with the federal government.
At the same time, 90 percent of Americans believe our "best and brightest" would do more good for the country by starting small businesses than working for government, according to a Dec. 31 informal poll by Investor Resources Inc. And even in today's world of business scandals, bailouts and high unemployment, 60 percent would prefer private- over public-sector employment.
Meanwhile, the Office of Personnel Management estimates that 60 percent of all full-time, permanent federal government employees will be eligible to retire by 2016.
To address this approaching "perfect storm," we need to restore confidence in government and focus our efforts on making government service a desirable career choice.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, is spearheading an effort to do just that.
Known as the "Campaign for High Performance Government," the program, announced April 12, will be based at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. The Robertson Foundation for Government, which is dedicated to strengthening our country by attracting the "best and brightest" to government careers, will help finance the effort. Wagner School Professor Paul C. Light, a leading expert on federal workforce issues and a Robertson Foundation advisory board member, will lead the initiative.
In announcing the campaign at a recent American Society for Public Administration annual meeting, Volcker described the problem: "Public demands on government are high, but confidence remains low. Interest in public service in general, and especially among the young, is clear, but service in the federal government remains a questionable destination at both the top and bottom of the hierarchy. The need for high-performance government is undeniable, but seems just out of reach when crisis strikes."
Those involved in the new campaign agree that, in Volcker's words, we need an effort that focuses on "the ethical requirements [of public service] and the administrative processes" — what he called "the blocking and tackling" of everyday operations — that make government an effective, responsive and responsible tool of the American people.
Light said the campaign was spurred by "breakdowns in the federal hierarchy," and will focus on three specific areas: the presidential appointment process, duplication and overlap of government programs, and civil service reform.
The campaign will reintroduce some of the reform recommendations that came out of earlier reports from the National Commission on Public Service, a bipartisan group of experts on government who developed 1999 and 2003 proposals for reforming the federal public service. These include the need for more flexibility in recruitment, better alignment of pay with performance, curbing the proliferation of political appointments, and recognizing the need for better training for federal employees.
With all of the challenges facing the U.S., we need a high-performance government staffed by high-performance employees. We can attract such employees by making federal service an exciting and rewarding career choice, a place where "doers" go to make things work.
As Volcker noted, "Too much of what government achieves is at risk without wide-ranging changes to improve performance and restore trust."
The time to focus on public service reform is now, before the perfect storm becomes a Category 5 hurricane and drives America's most-talented students away from government service, where the need has never been greater.
William S. Robertson is chairman of the Robertson Foundation for Government, a nonprofit family foundation.