Why Enhancing Civil Service Starts with Restoring a Sense of Civic Duty

by Jace Johnson

posted on 10-22-2018

Today, I attended the White House Office of American Innovation event on attracting commercial talent to government and spurring interest in civil service.

Most of us can probably look back at our formative years and identify a few important moments that shaped our hopes for the future. One such moment for me was the seemingly mundane experience of taking a government class in high school.

At the time, my goal was simply to check a requirement box and perhaps make my transcripts a bit more robust for college. However, my teacher Ms. Thompson had other plans. Known as a “hard” teacher and grader, Ms. Thompson never mailed it in. In fact, she accomplished what some would likely still argue is impossible—she made government seem exciting by harkening back to an era just after the Great Depression and World War II when Americans were energized by a shared sense of civic duty and purpose to rebuild and serve their country.

She gave us assignments that, at the time, seemed absurd, like assigning mini-members of a mock U.S. Congress and making us go through the unenviable task of working with our classmates to pass a bill. Not surprisingly, we found it to be virtually impossible and uncannily like the real thing. More than anything, her class gave us insight into the good that government can do for people throughout the world. And, yes, she also taught us the ways government could be improved and what lessons should be learned from past failures.

I bought it. All of it. I knew then that I wanted to devote part of my life to government service.

But, like many high school students, I grew up with conflicting interests, which made academic and career planning even more difficult. My advisors and mentors made things worse by insisting that people should only have one career. Even so, I knew I wanted to find a way to serve in government at some point, no matter the obstacles.

I wasn’t alone. I met others with similar interests, some even more driven than I was. Many of them ended up serving in the military, teaching public school or working for nonprofits. There is still a large contingent of people in our society that want to do both private and public work at different points in their careers. Both government and private companies hope to attract the best and brightest to join their workforces. Unfortunately, many end up feeling forced to choose between the two and stick with that choice throughout their careers.

Right now, simply applying for a government job – let alone getting one – is an overly cumbersome and bureaucratic process and has been for some time. The status quo is built mainly for those hoping to make government service their entire careers and is not conducive to the idea of allowing private sector employees – no matter how experienced and qualified they might be – to have limited stints in public service.

This needs to change.

Over the years, key thought leaders in government have recognized the potential benefit of bringing private-sector talent into the government on a temporary basis. More and more programs for civic service continue to be established to help bridge the gap between the two sectors. One example, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, established in 2012, has already placed more than 120 talented people from the business community in important positions at more than 30 federal agencies. The stated goal of the program is to bring the “principles, values and practices of the innovation economy into government,” which helps to both improve government operations and give opportunities to those looking to serve. In addition, the United States Digital Service has pioneered a “tour of duty” concept that allows professionals from an array of industries to come to work at the agency for a short time to solve specific problems before returning to the private sector.

These are positive steps. But, more needs to be done, not just by government, but also civic-minded people who want to serve their country, state or city, as well as businesses that recognize the value of allowing employees to take sabbaticals or leaves of absence for limited terms in government service.

As leaders at the federal, state and local levels have expressed interest in enhancing civic service opportunities, the tech community has put forward ideas to facilitate short-term service opportunities for employees and ongoing cooperation between government and private-sector innovators. These include expanding the “tour of duty” concept to more departments and agencies; creating personnel exchanges between government and the IT sector; and incentives, such as partial student loan forgiveness, to make temporary periods of government service more appealing for tech workers. These are just some ideas that have been put forward, there are undoubtedly other approaches that could be effective.

At an individual level, people should be mindful when making long-term decisions about their careers, finances, and lifestyles, all of which can make any future hopes of government service – even on a temporary basis – far more difficult. Private sector work is almost always going to be more lucrative than public service, but with planning and forward thinking, that doesn’t have to be an obstacle for those who want to serve.

In the end, our goal for our workforce should be the same as Ms. Thompson’s goal for her students: a widespread sense of civic duty and a desire for public service. We should be working together to give more people that kind of opportunity. Doing so will not only benefit individual citizens, it will also foster greater cooperation between business and government as we work to address the many challenges we face.

Topics: Public Policy, Government, Industry