Task force report highlights changing nature of government service

A task force convened by Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to examine the changing nature of government service has issued a report finding that the federal hiring and personnel system is broken to the point of crisis and recommending that government and academic leaders work together to develop future public servants who will require new skills in the 21st century.

Created in November 2007, the task force was chaired by Paul Volcker -- a 1949 graduate of the Wilson School and former Federal Reserve Board chair who currently is the chair of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board -- and was composed of a panel of experts. For 18 months task force members explored how colleges, universities and schools of public policy can educate and motivate top students for modern government service.

The task force was directed by William Barron Jr., a career federal government official and former visiting scholar at the Wilson School. 

The task force studied the extreme demands placed on the government in the 21st century, as well as the shifting career patterns in the work force. The experts examined the combined efforts of the federal government, schools of public policy and public service organizations to create an environment where "individual students, career placement experts, government managers and government leaders can better assure more flexible, rewarding and productive public service careers."

The task force found four trends compounding the crisis: major failures in a list of government programs at the federal level; ebbing confidence in government institutions and leaders; a "broken" government hiring and personnel system; and an increased reliance on government subcontracting of programs and jobs.

In addition, the task force highlighted the issue of the anticipated baby boomer retirement wave, which has added another level to the personnel crisis.

The report notes that "the 2008 elections came after an alarming string of outright government failures and in the face of a mounting list of critical challenges." Some of these failures included "the response to Hurricane Katrina … serious financial and performance issues with both defense and non-defense contractors, collapsing bridges, failure to adequately regulate the banking and mortgage industries, as well as unsafe meat, vegetables, fruit, cribs, toys, drugs and other products."

Barron said, "The task force sought to identify the complex and changing nature of federal service, while highlighting the ongoing crisis in recruitment and retention -- a crisis that's particularly acute as reports indicate the federal government needs to add approximately 600,000 employees just during President Obama's administration. The administration is already taking positive steps to address this important issue, though the report emphasizes that government needs to engage universities and schools of public policy more proactively to help encourage the next generation to [pursue] public service."

The task force offered three overarching recommendations for policymakers and the public to address the changing nature of government service. First, schools of public policy must act as champions of government service for their own students and serve as a gateway to public service for other parts of their campuses. Working together, government agencies and schools of public policy also should develop "paths of service" for career opportunities for current and future federal employees, the report says.

Next, to replenish the ranks at all levels, the federal government must segment the applicant pool to better understand the skills, abilities, motivations and professional needs of distinct career profiles -- from traditional "lifers" to "career switchers" coming to government mid-career or later. The task force also proposed establishing and maintaining a report card system for staff recruitment, hiring, retention and advancement.

Third, the task force recommended that schools of public policy should work with government agencies and management experts to identify the skills and knowledge needed to allow current and future government officials to govern directly and through private and civic networks. In this light, the task force further advised that the federal government initiate an interagency discussion to ensure departments and agencies are not outsourcing their core missions and oversight responsibilities. "Government officials cannot just be monitoring," the report states, "they must be actively managing in a networked environment."

Task force members included Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations; Alan Krueger, a Wilson School professor currently on public service leave as assistant U.S. treasury secretary for economic policy; Susan Marquis, dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School who earned MPA and Ph.D. degrees from the Wilson School in 1987 and 1995, respectively; Nolan McCarty, associate dean of the Wilson School; Joseph Nye Jr., a 1958 Wilson School graduate and former dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government; Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former dean of the Wilson School who currently is on public service leave as director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department; Allison Stanger, director of the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs at Middlebury College; Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service; and Lynn Thoman, a 1977 graduate of Princeton and co-president of the Lowenstein Foundation.

The full report is available on the Wilson School website.