Dean Ellwood Advocates Federal Hiring Reforms in Senate Testimony

June 21, 2011
by Doug Gavel

Harvard Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood is urging lawmakers to reform the process by which talent is recruited, hired and promoted by and within the federal government. In testimony submitted for a Senate hearing on Tuesday (June 21), Ellwood describes how the convoluted federal hiring system often fails to inspire the highest achieving students into careers in public service.

“The good news is that sensational people of all ages stand ready and willing to serve. People of all ages have again been seized by a patriotic idealism and a desire to give back…At the Kennedy School, we have hundreds of masters and doctoral students eager to make a difference,” Ellwood explains.

“The bad news is that our system of federal government hiring will drive most of them away and is unlikely to find and select the most able among them. Any sizable private business that hired employees in the way the federal government does would have gone out of business long ago.”

Ellwood suggests several changes – both in terms of policy and leadership – to improve hiring and retention processes on the federal level.

“First, our leaders in departments and agencies, in the White House, in unions and in the must take government hiring just as seriously as the finest organizations in the private and non-profit sector,” he argues. “Second, the federal government must move from a passive bureaucratic hiring model to one that is active.

“Finally, to make these things happen, we must find ways to hold senior leaders along with managers and supervisors accountable for their human resources performance, from the time it takes to hire people, to the quality of people selected, to the quality of the experience of applicants and staff members,” Ellwood contends.

Ellwood is asking the Congress to draw attention to the issue and to prod government agencies and their leaders forward in reform efforts.

“If we continue to fail to replace those leaving government with our most talented citizens, the government will weaken, fewer will want to serve, crises will grow, and a vicious circle of decline can set in,” he argues. “Or we can take advantage of the best America has to offer, finding a way, as we have so often in the past, to create a government of solutions and innovation and collaboration who will help us craft a future worthy of this nation.”

The hearing on “Inspiring Students to Federal Service” was hosted by the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia.

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Photograph of David T. Ellwood

Harvard Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood, Scott M. Black professor of political economy

“If we continue to fail to replace those leaving government with our most talented citizens, the government will weaken, fewer will want to serve, crises will grow, and a vicious circle of decline can set in,” he argues. “Or we can take advantage of the best America has to offer, finding a way, as we have so often in the past, to create a government of solutions and innovation and collaboration who will help us craft a future worthy of this nation.”

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