Good Intentions, Bad Idea

Unlike the military institutes, the public service academy concept is flawed from the start.

Unlike the military institutes, the public service academy concept is flawed from the start.

It's not easy to knock H.R. 1671 and S. 960, the House and Senate bills that would establish the U.S. Public Service Academy. The bills have drawn bipartisan support and endorsements from two presidential candidates-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden. And the proposal addresses a real problem: the shortfall in talented people interested in working for federal, state and local government. Still, it's a badly flawed concept.

The idea is based roughly on the armed services' pioneering U.S. Military Academy, established in 1802. The Public Service Academy would recruit talented high school graduates, provide a liberal arts education with emphasis on leadership and public service, and arrange placement in a public sector job. The education would be free for students who complete five years of public service.

One critical weakness of the plan is its determination to establish a government-run facility to provide a service already available at dozens of universities. Remember the famous Yellow Pages test, which says that government shouldn't make something if multiple providers already are listed in the phone book? The proposal flunks that test. The National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration has accredited more than 150 undergraduate and graduate programs in the field. Several of those schools would take exception to the claim in H.R. 1671 and S. 960 that America lacks "national institutions" to promote public service.

As scholars and teachers in public administration, we know that government agencies make a critical contribution to the public interest. But we also know there are certain tasks that bureaucracies don't perform particularly well. Running a liberal arts university is one of them.

As the legislation now stands, there would be extraordinary pressure on Public Service Academy administrators to make research and teaching conform to short-term priorities. This is apparent with the proposal's emphasis on security concerns. The academy would be located in the Homeland Security Department, and the DHS secretary would be the only permanent member of its oversight board. National security is the only substantive criterion mentioned in the bills that would guide decisions about placement of graduates in the federal government.

Put aside the wisdom of entrusting a leadership academy to the department that ranks lowest in surveys on workplace satisfaction. How would the rest of the federal bureaucracy-including departments such as Health and Human Services, Interior or Education-be served by this security-oriented agenda? Is a military approach to education, including a requirement that students wear uniforms to classes, likely to produce leaders who would be well-suited for other sectors of government?

And then there is the problem of inflexibility. Suppose academy administrators decide a few years from now that experience and changing circumstances require an adjustment in curriculum. Any university administrator can tell you that such adaptation is a necessary but difficult task. Their problems would pale, however, next to the predicament of the academy's managers, who would find that key elements of the curriculum are cemented in an act of Congress.

Another critical weakness of the plan is the technique for encouraging graduates to stick with the public sector. It holds graduates liable for the cost of their education until they have completed five years of service. After that, the alumni would be on their own in developing a career path. There is nothing that parallels the system of advancement in the military. There is no plan for more challenging assignments and no path to posts at the highest levels of government.

We've already seen well-intentioned recruitment programs fall short of their potential because of the failure to undertake such long-term planning. According to human capital experts in government, there has been no systematic tracking of the 3,000 alumni of the Presidential Management Fellows program. There is a significant initial investment in recruits, but the government fails to nurture that investment in later years.

This is a sharp contrast to the military academies, which are part of a much larger system for identifying and grooming leaders. Officers are consciously given challenging assignments and clear signals about performance and progress. There is a path for advancement to the highest ranks.

Moreover, officers know that two decades of service will result in a generous pension. We don't advocate similar entitlements for civilian employees. We simply note that the incentives for graduates of military academies to stick with public service are far stronger than they would be for alumni of the Public Service Academy.

The House and Senate should be commended for their efforts to address the human capital crisis. But let's apply a 21st century solution. We can leverage the capabilities of many institutions already engaged in public service education. For example, we could consider an ROTC-style plan to reimburse tuition for students in existing degree programs. We could encourage curriculum en-hancements, such as short-term postings and internships in public sector jobs. And we could use technology to allow leading scholars and practitioners to instruct students on standardized components of the curriculum.

Of course, we need to go further. We must build stronger incentives for individuals to remain committed to public service-through career development, competitive salaries for critical posts and reduced reliance on political appointees at the apex of government.

This approach would give us more than another national institution. It would create a robust but flexible network of researchers, teachers and students committed to public service leadership.

Professors of public administration at Syracuse University's Maxwell School, David Van Slyke (www.vanslyke.info) is the Birkhead-Burkhead Professor of Teaching Excellence and Alasdair Roberts (www.aroberts.us) received the 2006 NAPA book award.

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