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What do the vice president of people operations at Google, the vice president of global workforce diversity at IBM, the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, the director of the Secret Service, and the senior vice president of recruitment at Teach for America have in common? Together with many others in the public, private, nonprofit, and academic sectors, they all believe that this is a “once in a generation” moment to bring the most talented people into the federal government. And with public challenges such as unemployment, climate change, health care, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan clamoring for government solutions, making sure the government has the people it needs to do its work is vitally important.

Dean David T. Ellwood has led the call for what he describes as “transformational changes in the way we hire, support, and promote our public servants.” The call for change has been made before. But this is a moment, Ellwood and others argue, in which the stars finally seem aligned.

Nearly a third of midlevel and upper-level federal government officials are due to retire in the next few years. A weakened private job market has made public sector work more attractive to top talent. The scale of the problems faced by government presents very real challenges. And public service has an inspirational spokesman in President Barack Obama.

Tackling the federal workforce is no easy matter. The federal government is the country’s largest employer. Not counting active-duty military personnel and postal workers, Washington employs roughly 1.9 million men and women.

The federal work environment, says Jack Donahue, Kennedy School lecturer on public management and a former assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, is a relic of an earlier time, unrecognizable to anyone working in the private sector today.

Some of the differences may be seen as good ones. Wages are much higher (the median federal civil servant salary is $61,750, compared with $32,390 in the private sector), tenure is much longer (an average of more than 16 years, compared with four years in the private sector), and union representation, at 33 percent, is nearly four times as high as in than the private sector.

But they come hand in hand with serious problems. A report by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the federal workforce, found the hiring process unbelievably complicated: Some federal job application instructions are 35 pages long, while a hiring process in the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid program took 114 separate steps and still managed to fail in delivering high quality candidates. Hiring can take 6 or even 12 months time during which young graduates with loan obligations, or talented professionals, can be lured away by other possibilities.

“Graduate school is not inexpensive,” says Rebecca Hummel MPP 2007, who after being accepted in the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program waited five months to learn whether she had a position at the State Department. “I think that things are stressful for people coming out of graduate school, and it’s hard to have things up in the air for many, many months.”

For those entering the federal hiring process, the confusion is just beginning. Deanne Titus MC/MPA 2010 came to the Kennedy School after receiving a scholarship through the Harvard Presidential Scholars program, which covers tuition for students pursuing careers in public service. But even for Titus, who has extensive experience in both the private sector and local government in Atlanta, and who has a clear interest in federal transportation policy, the way forward is unclear.

“To me it’s just a big ball of confusion, and I’d really like to break it down,” says Titus, who has applied for the PMF program and is also looking for federal jobs independently. The system, and her encounters with federal employees visiting the school, have done little to point out a clear path toward a career with the federal government. Although she is receiving guidance from the Kennedy School’s Office of Career Advancement, it has been difficult to find people within the system who can shed light on it. “I think it’s just a matter of streamlining it,” she says.

To that end, Ellwood has been championing reforms that include enhancing the hiring and recruitment system and providing more creative financial incentives — such as more loans, fellowships, and programs that encourage students to serve in government in exchange for educational benefits. Others are: making changes to salary and promotions; allowing government to retain talented employees and attract more mid-career professionals; developing new tools to measure how government is succeeding in recruiting talented people; and making the improvement of basic government operations a priority.

In October, Ellwood convened a meeting of leaders from across the political spectrum and from the private, nonprofit, and academic sectors to discuss federal service reforms. Present were representatives from the White House, cabinet agencies, Congress, and organized labor along with the officials mentioned above.

“I came away with the impression that the Obama administration understands the enormity and complexity of this task, and is prepared to step forward to meet it,” Ellwood says. “In fact, the Office of Personnel Management, which helped organize the roundtable, is currently working on a package of reform measures to improve and enhance the federal government’s recruitment and hiring processes.”

In the end, transforming the way the federal government hires, promotes, retains, and gets the most out of the talent pool eager to be of service will not be easy, Ellwood says. “But it is imperative,” he continues, “that we make the right investments to attract the most passionate, dedicated, and talented young people into exciting and meaningful positions in the federal workforce. When that happens, vision and innovation will become the hallmarks of government service, and our country will benefit.”

Harvard Kennedy School students are drawn by service — particularly federal service, which appeals to a mixture of patriotism, interest in issues handled at the federal level, and a practical appreciation of the federal government’s unique ability to place them in a position to effect real change.

Their experiences are as diverse and unique as the students themselves. Here are three stories that illustrate how both current students and alumni approach the idea and practice of federal service.

Rebecca Hummel

Rebecca Hummel MPP 2007 is where she wants to be now: Working on the ground in Afghanistan as a program manager for USAID’s Afghanistan Stabilization Initiative and making a daily difference in the lives of people there. But her route to government service has not been an easy or straightforward one.

Hummel did not arrive at the Kennedy School convinced that service for the federal government was her ultimate goal. S he came to the school with a particular interest in Africa and international security. In the summer after her first year she went to work in New Orleans on the community rebuilding project in the Broadmoor neighborhood. At the beginning of her second year, as she began to weigh career choices, she cast a wide net. She applied for jobs in high tech and private sector consulting, and even explored the possibility of doing more scholarly work at the Belfer Center. But, influenced by her mentors at the school, Hummel looked increasingly at federal service.

“I had worked for Graham Allison and Joe Nye, both of whom had been in the world (of federal government service), and I felt like I should give it a shot,” she says.

She applied for the Presidential Management Fellows program. The application was in October, followed by a test in January; the results were announced in February. It wasn’t until April that Hummel and others accepted into the PMF program were able to meet prospective employers at a Washington, DC job fair. Following her own lead, she talked to people in the State Department’s Iran office, who told her they would like to bring her on board. But there was never a guarantee, Hummel said. She moved to DC after graduation, getting a temporary job while following the progress of her application, but it wasn’t until months later, on a Friday in September, that she was told she would start — the following Monday.

Hummel’s experience in the Iran office was invaluable, she says, but after working at USAID (the PMF program requires fellows to spend time at one other federal agency during their two years) she decided to drop out of the PMF program to follow her interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan issues.

“Even if I’ve taken some detours here and there, I still feel like I’m living up to what I’ve always been interested in doing,” she says. “I’m challenged every day, I’m learning every day, and I feel like I’m a part of something. And I think that’s the spirit of the Kennedy School: being committed and striving for things that are bigger than ourselves and being a part of that.”

Josh Archambault

Josh Archambault MPP 2010 knows something about the public sector: he worked on Beacon Hill for three years, for Governor Mitt Romney and for state Senator Scott Brown. He interned last summer with the General Accounting Office in Boston and his wife works for a large federal agency. He is committed to good government and to making sure that government uses resources wisely and efficiently.

So when Archambault began his job search last year, he started with the federal government. It seemed like a natural transition, he says. He took the Presidential Management Fellows exam in January.

However, he, like many of his generation, is a little conflicted about what that choice would mean. First of all, there are conditions: He would work for the federal government only, he says, if he were working for certain agencies and people. Salaries, promotions, and the hiring process are important considerations for him. And then there’s his generational idea of what a career looks like.

“People in my generation and the generation above have this expectation of being at jobs for two to five years and then moving on to other opportunities,” he says.

The notion of being at an institution for the rest of his professional career — something he associates with federal civil service work — feels a little alien.

“I guess being there for 30 years would be a nice surprise because it would mean I couldn’t peel myself away from what I was doing for that long,” he says, in a tone that suggests he could never see it happening. “I think there’s a tension in the federal government, because historically, in the big agencies, people have gone and made careers of it.”

So if it weren’t a lifetime job, could working for the federal government be part of a career that stepped from sector to sector?

Archambault says there are other things he would like to do, such as working on Capitol Hill, doing advocacy work for a nonprofit, or maybe working in government relations for a private company. A job with the federal government would ideally have to accommodate those other things. But whether he goes in now or not, Archambault does not feel that a window on service with the federal government is closing.

“There probably will continue to be a need for public policy students,” he says. “If there’s an issue I feel really passionate about in 10 years, there probably will be an opportunity there.”

David Agnew

As White House deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, David Agnew MPP 1990 is the link between President Obama and the nation’s mayors. It’s a job that seems tailor-made for Agnew, who brings a mixture of local government, federal government, and private sector experience to the office. Agnew traces his passion for public service back to working on elections from the age of 12. He helped his brother’s successful statehouse campaign when he was 15, and at 18, in 1984, he was the youngest ever delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

He steered clear of a family tradition in law, and came to the Kennedy School. After working for Price Waterhouse following graduation, including a year spent helping the government in Prague with privatization, Agnew embarked on his first federal experience during the Clinton administration, when he was a special assistant in the office of Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a former Kennedy School professor. (He was a political appointee.)

There he worked with another Kennedy School faculty member, Jack Donahue, who was Reich’s counselor. In his book The Warping of Government Work, Donahue used Agnew and some other “junior stars” in the Labor Department to illustrate how the federal government fails to retain top talent.

“There were certainly moments that made me cynical about how DC works,” Agnew says about his time at the Labor Department. “I learned that the federal government can sometimes be a slow, frustrating place to work. I also believe that the federal government is full of people working hard to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. This desire is what we need to cultivate and encourage.”

But in the end, he says, he left because he had the opportunity to work with the legendary Charleston mayor Joseph Riley.

“Working at the local level, with a mayor who gets things done and is in touch with the rhythms of a community — that’s a chance you don’t get very much in the federal service,” Agnew says.

Agnew continued to stay involved in community affairs even after he moved back to the private sector, as a real estate developer.

He was drawn early to Obama’s presidential campaign (“It was one of the most inspiring political movements that I’ll ever be a part of,” he says), and it proved to be a natural stepping-stone back to federal government work.

“What mayors do, I love,” he says. “It’s a passion, because they’re making cities better. The chance to help them do that from a White House position — well, I was sold on it from the beginning.”