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Why Would Anyone Want to Work for the Government?

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In today’s environment where government service is not valued by the American public or Congress, what are the incentives that make government service attractive to the current/next generation of the “best and brightest?”

--Brian Russo

In this column I have mentioned several times how difficult today’s environment is for federal employees.  Three years of wage freezes, an austere fiscal environment (even before sequestration), a public and Congress that frequently act in ways hostile to government workers--all of which send a message: the federal workforce is not valued.  But, even for those who advocate a dramatic shrinking of the size of the federal workforce, new hires are and will be needed.  One has to wonder in such an environment how the government is going to attract the best and the brightest.  What incentives make government employment attractive?

In the current federal epoch, it is more than likely that government will be unable to attract great talent for all but a few positions.  In a prior posting, I described how people tend to be motivated by economic, social and emotional, and ideological factors .  Reviewing these factors provides insight into why current incentives, on the whole, discourage the best and the brightest from applying for federal positions.

  1. Economic:  At present, expectations of economic motivation are greatly diminished in the federal government, which means that economic incentives are unlikely to be useful for attracting today’s best and brightest­­­.  A continuing wage freeze, furloughs (or the threat of them), job reductions without a corresponding reduction in the work that needs to be done, etc., have created an expectation that federal workers must work harder for less pay.  Perhaps the most recent illustration of this loss of economic incentive is the elimination of financial rewards associated with the Presidential Rank Awards.  With these declining economic incentives and little economic upside, why would someone with better job prospects (presumably the best and the brightest have such options) be economically motivated to join the federal workforce?
  2. Social and Emotional:  If economic incentives are not working, perhaps social and emotional incentives can?  Probably not.  Social attachments develop with co-workers after employment begins.  And, to the extent that gaining social recognition or status is a motivator, it is difficult to imagine in the current epoch that potential hires believethat they will gain recognition or status by working for the federal government.   
  3. Ideological:  With the first two sources of incentives working in the wrong direction, ideological motivation offers the only remaining source for attracting the best and brightest.  Perhaps people with passionate beliefs, whether political or altruistic, will be attracted to the federal government because it has unparalleled resources and power to accomplish certain aims.  Indeed, ideological incentives do continue to attract applicants to the federal government but two caveats should be realized.  First, there is no guarantee that people attracted to federal employment on an ideological basis are the best and the brightest or are great workers.  Second, ideological workers pose certain risks.  For instance, although a contractor, Edward Snowden’s seeking out employment with Booz Allen Hamilton so that he could collect and disclose top-secret NSA information provides a cautionary tale about the benefits of hiring those with strong ideologies.

Although not an encouraging assessment of the incentives available for attracting the current generation of talented workers to federal employment, encouraging news is on the horizon.  Like all epochs of history, current ones end and new ones begin.  The painful process of downsizing and reconfiguring the federal government will continue; but these efforts eventually will subside.  In the next epoch, expect many opportunities in the federal government that will attract the best and the brightest:  much responsibility at a young age, rapid advancement, and improved training especially around leadership.  Indeed, these features of future federal job opportunities will be the logical conclusion of the massive retirement wave now rippling through the federal government. 

In sum, attracting great talent to the federal government will remain a challenge until the age of austerity has ended.  The current incentives simply are not very attractive to the most desirable candidates.  But these incentives will change at some point and once again the federal government will be an attractive option for future generations of the best and the brightest.

Duce a mente (May you lead by thinking),

Jackson Nickerson

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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