Q. & A. with Dean David T. Ellwood: Acting in Time on the Government Workforce

January 26, 2010
by Doug Gavel

The federal government is facing both compelling opportunities and major challenges in bringing the most talented people to serve. People want to serve in government, the government needs skilled and inspired workers, and yet there are multiple obstacles to matching those interests and those needs. Young people seeking opportunities in public service are often deterred by bureaucratic red tape and delays and choose instead to serve their country outside the sphere of Washington. As dean of Harvard Kennedy School, David T. Ellwood is alarmed by the scope of the problem, and is working with lawmakers and others to find solutions. We recently spoke with Dean Ellwood in his office to learn more.

Q: Why is this issue of such critical importance right now?

Dean Ellwood: Nothing is more important than the quality of people working in government. Just think about the enormous challenges and crises and problems that we face – whether it’s climate change or healthcare reform or security or even the war in Afghanistan. This is a classic “acting in time” problem. Anyone can see the problem, yet we fail to act.

All of these are huge problems, and here is the real danger: something like 30 percent of the federal workforce is due to leave in the next five years. I’m talking about the civil servants that are at the core of our government. Many of those people came on board during the Kennedy Administration. They are some of our very best people, and they are leaving at precisely the moment we are facing huge policy challenges. This is an absolutely critical moment for bringing in the best and the brightest – not only people who can really make a difference, but also people who really care.

The good news is that right now is a moment when people would like to serve. They are inspired by the need to solve the problems. This is partly a long-term trend toward more people giving back, wanting to make a difference, and partly people having been inspired by a new president. The weak economy means that government can attract more and better people. So the good news is – at just precisely the moment when we need good people, young people as well as people of all ages have been inspired to serve. The bad news is that our federal hiring system is a mess. It’s almost impossible to get the right people in to the right places at the right time.

Q: What are some of the primary and critical choking points in the federal workforce system that need to be addressed?

Dean Ellwood: Consider a simple contrast between a private employer and the federal government. Let’s take a business consulting firm like McKinsey. They go through a several-day long interview process; it is very intense with their most senior people present, and they make job offers within a few weeks. So, as a student, you know whether you’ve got a job and what it’s going to be and who you’re going to be working for, and you’ve met with some of the more senior people from the organization.

The hiring process for the federal government typically takes far longer. If you’re the most attractive candidate and you get to be, say, a Presidential Management Fellow, the process will end and you’ll finally have a job maybe by the summer or fall after graduation. It’s a disaster.

Others have to apply through USAJobs, which people around the country often call ‘a big black hole.’ You have to complete elaborate applications, including essay questions, and it often leads nowhere. It really is a broken system and it’s no surprise that we have trouble getting people into the system.

What’s kind of amazing in some respects to me is how many of our students still end up in government. About 42 percent of our students do government work; another 20 to 25 percent do non-profit work; and the others do private sector work, but much of it is really public-focused work being done by the private sector. The system is just not designed toward really trying to find superb people and putting them in the right jobs.

Q: In October Harvard Kennedy School convened a group of stakeholders from across the political and professional spectrums in Washington to discuss ways in which federal service can be reformed to make it a more attractive destination for talented and driven young people. What were some of the most compelling ideas brought forward during the discussions?

Dean Ellwood: We had the idea of convening this roundtable to bring more focus to the issue. It was an “acting in time” moment when we realized that now is the time, the moment, to get momentum to try to make something happen. But when you realize all of the different actors in play – whether it’s the unions or Congress or the various parts of government – it turned out to be a remarkably difficult group to pull together. But it felt to me like an issue in which the Kennedy School was in a good place to be helpful.

We brought together people like the head of HR for Google, the head of recruiting for GE, the head of diversity for IBM, and the head of recruiting for Teach for America. And we had the heads of the federal workers’ unions; we had key people from Congress; we had very senior people from the Administration. And I think one of the most powerful and important ideas that emerged was the simplest – in organizations that really are effective, finding the right people is seen as the most important task they have. People in the private sector discussed how their most senior management spend four to eight hours a week on hiring and recruiting to find the right folks. It’s clear that it really matters that senior people pay attention.

There are a few places where this also happens in the federal government – in the Secret Service for instance. But in most federal agencies, nobody senior goes on the road to recruit, and almost nothing systematic is done. It’s a system that underperforms simply because so few people care and pay attention.

Another really important insight that emerged from the roundtable was that we don’t need new legislation to correct most of the problems. The problem is more a set of bureaucratic processes that have remained in place for too long. This idea of convening the private sector, the non-profit sector, and various parts of the government sector to say we could really learn from each other was actually quite controversial. Yet when we did it, you could feel the energy, you could feel the excitement, you could feel the sense that we all really could make a difference and it wasn’t that difficult. So it can be done; it’s just a matter of energy and tackling it, and I’m really optimistic that the Obama Administration might want to do some of that.

Q: Where do we go from here? What is your vision for the future of the federal workforce and how best can we inspire young people to get involved?

Dean Ellwood: I think a great example of powerful and effective “branding” and recruiting is Teach for America. Not long ago, very few people had even heard of Teach for America. Now it is considered a top career choice for new college graduates; 14 percent of Harvard seniors apply for Teach for America. How did that happen? The organization decided that people were their most important element. They placed recruiters and interviewers on college campuses, not only to do an interview here or there, but actually to make connections affirmatively, and to recruit people throughout the year. They worked hard to create a brand. That was another major insight from the roundtable – that great organizations get known among young people as a great place to work. Those brands can be organizations like Google, or Teach for America or even the Secret Service. The federal government as a whole does none of that, except in very rare cases. So a key for organizations that work well is being pro-active on recruiting. It’s bringing together the right people. And it’s making sure that the most senior folks in the organization are really paying attention.

My hope would be that a number of federal agencies will really take the lead and say, “This is how it can be done.” I would also add that the Office of Personnel Management will become seen as the agency that is out to help any federal employer that’s willing to take seriously the issue of bringing in the best talent. We ought to celebrate the people and employers that find ways to make it work, and reduce and remove the procedures or regulations that get in the way. We ought to create a federal system in which people get hired not in a year, but get hired in 60 or 80 days. We ought to have a system in which new hires understand the excitement and the energy that’s possible when you work in government. I spent time in government as a political appointee, and I was surrounded by terrific people. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was one of the two greatest jobs I’ve ever had. I’m in the other one right now.

Q: Why are you and the Kennedy School so involved in this effort?

Dean Ellwood: The Kennedy School has a simple goal: making the world a better place. We seek to train exceptional public leaders and create the ideas to help solve public problems. If ever there was a time when we need superb public leaders – in this case public sector leaders – this is it.

If ever there was a time when we needed bold and innovative ideas, if there was ever a time when we need to lead – this is it. So this effort is centrally a part of the Kennedy School. Our students, they come to the Kennedy School in spite of someone telling them that they’re naïve, in spite of people saying, ‘”Jeez, it’s not your responsibility, what can you ever do?” The Kennedy School and others like it around the country are filled with people who genuinely believe they can make the world a better place, genuinely believe it’s their job to do so, are smart and committed and dedicated. If that group is naïve, well, then welcome to one of the largest groups of smart and naïve people in the world who are making a difference. But you can’t make a difference if you don’t get the opportunity to be placed, to be involved, to be engaged, at the levels where you can really make a difference.

This is our chance. This is our moment. And ask ourselves, what happens if we don’t do it, if we lose the chance to get the best people in government? If that happens, we don’t have the right people to implement healthcare reform; we don’t have the right people to deal with the next Katrina; and we don’t have the right people to think about climate change.

So for me this is absolutely a central issue to the future of this nation and future of the world. And so I think it’s vital that places like the Kennedy School work on this, but also many others. What was so striking about the roundtable and these discussions is that all of the private sector companies, the very best known companies – Google, GE, IBM – all wanted to be a part of this discussion and to really make the government better because our futures all depend on it. So it’s something that is central to what I’m doing, and it’s a moment we need to take advantage of while we have the chance. We need to act in time.

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Dean David Ellwood

photo by Kent Dayton

"The Kennedy School has a simple goal: making the world a better place. We seek to train exceptional public leaders and create the ideas to help solve public problems. If ever there was a time when we need superb public leaders – in this case public sector leaders – this is it."

—Dean David Ellwood