Pumping Public Service

Do we really need an all-out effort to entice young people into federal jobs?

Donald Rumsfeld wants to save the public service. When the former Defense secretary left office late last year, some observers assumed he would devote his time to quickly pumping out a memoir of his tenure in the Bush administration-and perhaps the rest of his career at the highest levels of the federal government. But a spokesman told the Associated Press in mid-July that Rumsfeld's real passion at the moment was setting up a foundation to attract people to public service. "He's deep into that," the spokesman said.

He's not the only one. This year has brought a flurry of efforts to pump up government as a career choice. The proposal to establish a national civilian university known as the Public Service Academy won the support of none other than presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and a bipartisan group of other senators. And as of mid-July, the measure was up to 60 co-sponsors in the House.

The Office of Personnel Management continues to roll out its series of TV ads touting the virtues of federal employment. As of early this summer, the ads had aired in 17 markets across the country.

In early July, the House approved a measure that would provide loan forgiveness of $5,000 for college graduates who go into public service. Also, if graduates made 10 years' worth of repayments on their loans while serving full-time in government agencies or the nonprofit sector, their outstanding debt would be forgiven.

Shortly after the House acted, the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit dedicated to grooming the next generation of government leaders, introduced a proposal to create a Roosevelt Scholars program that would provide graduate school scholarships to qualified students in exchange for two years of service to the government.

All of these efforts, of course, are predicated on the notion that the exodus of baby boomers from the senior levels of government will leave agencies bereft of talent. "America faces a looming crisis in public service leadership," the proponents of the Public Service Academy say on their Web site. "National disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, along with our struggle against international terrorism, have highlighted the importance of public service and exposed our civic vulnerability. As the baby boomers retire, the statistics will only get worse."

But these efforts also assume that young people need to be enticed into public service. Forgive me-and I say this as someone facing the fact that he's no longer what you'd call young-but there is a certain amount of baby boomer vanity to the notion that young people must be convinced of the need to serve their fellow citizens. After all, research suggests that the generation of people coming out of college is pretty civic-minded when it comes to considering future careers. Last year, research by the Partnership for Public Service showed that 42 percent of college juniors and seniors were extremely or very interested in working for the federal government. That was nearly the same percentage as people who expressed high interest in large private companies or small firms.

Those figures indicate that the federal government doesn't need an "ask not what your country can do for you" call to inspire the next generation of civil servants. It needs to plan for specific openings in specific occupations at specific agencies. Some of the recent proposals recognize this. OPM, for example, is targeting its ads to areas-such as Rochester, N.Y.-that are home to educational institutions churning out the kind of graduates Uncle Sam needs to fill key jobs. The Partnership for Public Service's scholarship proposal would be aimed at filling critical needs, based on the organization's research about the kinds of employees that agencies will be looking to hire in future years.

Baby boomers at federal agencies don't need to worry that America's youth won't heed the call to service-and they might not even need to add a lot of sweeteners to convince the next generation of workers to devote at least part of their careers to government work. Mostly, they just need to let people know exactly where to find outlets for their civic energy.

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