Kennedy School Hosts D.C. Roundtable on ‘Inspiring Federal Service’

November 2, 2009
by Doug Gavel

Stakeholders from across a range of sectors gathered in Washington D.C. on Wednesday (Oct. 28) to confront the human capital challenges facing the federal government. The roundtable titled “Inspiring Federal Service” was sponsored by Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) in collaboration with the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and in close consultation with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The program was moderated by Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood, who told participants that “this is a once in a generation moment” to address the problems that effect the recruitment and hiring of federal workers.

“Our nation faces a set of problems that are amazingly intense…and huge numbers of our most experienced, most thoughtful workers are going to retire,” Ellwood said. “The good news is young people have never been more anxious to serve.”

Roundtable participants included representatives from the White House, several cabinet agencies, Congress, government employee organizations, and from the private, non-profit and academic sectors. Those at the table included House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD); former U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD); OMB Director John Berry; and John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Senior executives from General Electric, Google, IBM, McKinsey and Company, and Teach for America also participated.

The discussion focused on identifying and promoting effective and innovative hiring practices inside government.

“There is no reason the federal government can’t be the model employer for the nation. We are the largest, so why can’t we be the best?” Berry asked.

Ellwood identified several common themes that were heard throughout the roundtable: high performing organizations focus “ruthlessly” on their people; workers need to be seen as an investment, not a cost; relationship building both inside and outside organizations is critical; working throughout and across organizations and agencies is necessary to recruit, hire and nurture talent; and internship programs are a critical tool in reaching out to and developing new workers.

Other Kennedy School voices in the room included Linda Bilmes, lecturer in public policy and co-author of “The People Factor: Strengthening America by Investing in Public Service”; and John Donahue, Raymond Vernon lecturer in public policy and author of “The Warping of Government Work,” who along with HKS Chief of Staff Sarah Wald, served as a member of the Program Committee that helped plan the event.

Donahue spoke to the challenge of recruiting new federal workers at a time when the salary gap between the private and public sectors is expanding.

“If we want to have any hope of replacing [the federal workers who are leaving] with people of similar quality, we need to get everything else right,” Donahue said.

Bilmes expressed her hope that change can occur and will have a positive impact.

“My vision for the future is that we have a cultural shift both inside and outside government, so that in a few years everyone inside government feels very lucky in that they have a job that invests in them, and everyone outside government feels lucky that they have these incredible people working for them in the federal workforce,” she said.

Ellwood and Berry concluded the roundtable by urging those at the table to continue their efforts to “make the federal government cool again” – something that could go a long way, they said, toward attracting a talented new generation into the federal service at a time when the problems facing the country are as challenging as ever.

David T. Ellwood

David T. Ellwood moderated the discussion. Photo credit Steve Barrett.

“Our nation faces a set of problems that are amazingly intense…and huge numbers of our most experienced, most thoughtful workers are going to retire.The good news is young people have never been more anxious to serve.” - David T. Ellwood

Round table discussion

Roundtable participants included representatives from the White House, several cabinet agencies, Congress, government employee organizations, and from the private, non-profit and academic sectors. Photo credit Steve Barrett.


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