Gen X Execs

The next generation of federal executives has begun its ascent.

The nonprofit sector has boomed over the past three decades, growing faster than either the government or for-profit business. According to Independent Sector, an association of nonprofits, 1.9 million such groups are registered with the Internal Revenue Service, a doubling over the past 25 years. In the 1990s, with government downsizing, more public-service-minded college graduates turned to nonprofits for their careers. Those Gen X grads are now in their 30s and 40s and some already are rising into the executive ranks.

A case in point is Michelle Rhee, the new chancellor for the District of Columbia Public Schools-perhaps the toughest superintendent job in the nation. Rhee, a 1992 graduate of Cornell University, went on to get her public policy master's at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and taught for three years in Baltimore. In 1997, she founded a nonprofit called The New Teacher Project, which places top-notch teaching talent in public schools with some of the country's most impoverished students. Rhee's organization has placed more than 10,000 teachers with students deeply in need of them.

Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty convinced Rhee to take the top schools job this year based on her successful track record heading up the nonprofit. She brings a results-oriented, service-minded, nonideological approach to her job.

"My primary goal is to improve academic achievement for all students," Rhee said in her first letter to parents. "DCPS will focus intensively on instruction and activities that lead us to that goal. In every classroom, you will see a renewed focus on proven and effective teaching strategies. You will also be able to track your student's progress through a new system of interim assessments. If a student faces challenges, we will know before the end of the year. Our teachers will be able to address those needs immediately."

Rhee took the assignment after Fenty promised to give her wide-ranging authority to revamp one of the most intransigent and mismanaged bureaucracies in government-exemplified by the fact that no one could tell her how many people actually worked in central administration positions when she arrived. Rhee's tenure will be a good test of whether the skills she and her fellow Gen-Xers amassed in the nonprofit sector will translate into effective results in government.

Are there rising Gen X execs around to help federal bureaucracies become more effective? In April, Peter Ronayne, dean of faculty at the Federal Executive Institute, released a paper titled "Getting the X Into Senior Executive Service." Ronayne noted that Generation X is underrepresented in the civil service, in large part because of downsizing in the 1990s and low esteem for government among that age group. He says Gen-Xers largely are seen as impatient with bureaucracy. They expect rapid career advancement. They are focused on the practical. They are skeptical of closed-door proceedings, and they value transparency. Rhee is exhibiting each of those qualities. Witness her demand for broad authority, her focus on teaching as the key to academic achievement, and her promise of clear tracking of student progress for parents and teachers.

Ronayne estimates that 325 Gen-Xers have entered the federal Senior Executive Service-out of the more than 6,000 executives. Rhee's experience in a federal-style bureaucracy could help answer two questions: Are Gen-Xers ready to lead government agencies? Are government agencies ready to be led by Gen-Xers?

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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