Stanching America's Public Service Bleedout

Monday, February 1, 2010 - 16:15

The once-robust national atmosphere embracing citizen-aspirants to public service soured badly over the last 30 years. Ideologues and cynics have vilified government and practical politics, driving an entire generation of potential talent away from public service altogether or into the smaller scale, yet idealism friendly realms of the nonprofit sector. Unless we soon start fixing this gross political and cultural mistake, we can look ahead only to more - and worse - public institution dysfunction and paralysis. Like it or not, government provides the only way to evenhandedly scale up effective responses to critical social needs otherwise ignored by commerce and capital markets. Lose government effectiveness and we lose the flex and pliability of authentic democracy.

I have a thought on where to begin the correction.

As baby boomer senior managers and executives retire in the next decade, a big hole promises to open up in government workforces. A lot of worn-down folks occupy this group. They've been portrayed by politicians raging at handy shibboleths as lazy losers locked onto the public teat of government careers. Revenue slippage resulting from a coming wave of fiscal conservatism will obliterate some of the vacated jobs. But the positions remaining - and scads will be left to fill - will require a special kind of candidate. I propose we systematically and aggressively tap mature, effective 35 - 55-year-old nonprofit sector achievers eager for new challenges.

Let's create training and development programs that aid them in transitioning from their current positions to the new management and operational realities that local, state and federal governments will face. Let's encourage an unprecedented flow of senior talent not from law firms, corporations and lobbying outfits, but from nonprofit agencies accustomed to turning scarce resources into responsive human service systems. While we're at it, let's fundamentally re-make the image and the substance of public service careers in ways that attract not only these talented pros but also the bright, hungry corps of kids with high ideals currently in college.

Perhaps we can re-consider and temper for the next generation or two our adamant, individualistic instincts for more and greater novelty in the construction of government programs. It’s time to admit that activists and advocates have been exceedingly successful the last few decades in getting elected officials to respond to their initiatives, funding demands and program requests. The resulting “hyper-innovation,” as my UC Berkeley colleague Madeline Landau calls it, both in government – and even, at times, in the nonprofit sector – has left too many social experiments stranded and run aground without resources and without firm institutional anchor points. It’s also created pancake layers of disintegrated programs in government agencies, converting over-burdened agency managers from the civic idealists, creative leaders and good program managers they entered public service to become into frightened compliance machines covering their asses to avoid political retaliation.

If it's too much to ask that Americans actually love government, how about we learn to like it enough to make it work right? Government is not going away - and most of us don't have the luxury of living off the grid in the pristine delusion that society's larger interests are not also our own. So since we've got government, let's build into it the right kinds of flexibility and responsiveness so citizens don't have to face un-insulated the economic, health, social and cultural uncertainties that invariably afflict many of us when we live in market economies. Then let's populate every agency's operational and management ranks with smart, ambitious public servants and servant leaders capable of making government function. Just like a modern democracy's meant to.