Looking for our new site?

Star Search

A Million Federal Jobs are About to Open up for Young Americans. Can the Government Lure the Best?
June 1, 2003 |
For most of the past decade, the federal government, its hands tied by a hiring freeze, has done a terrible job of recruiting highly talented young people -- and it's paying the price.
Click here to read this full article.

Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, are a marvel of economy and engineering. Strap the $20,000 electronics kit onto the tail of a standard-issue dumb bomb, and you've created a deadly precision weapon that can be guided to its target by GPS satellites orbiting hundreds of miles above. The first generation of JDAMs are vastly cheaper than laser-guided missiles--price tag: $250,000 to $1 million apiece--yet are even more accurate than most of the munitions used during the first Gulf War. In this spring's campaign, JDAMs allowed U.S. warplanes to obliterate Iraq's armed forces with little risk to our pilots and troops and a minimum of collateral damage, moving Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to assert that the technology had given U.S. bombs "a degree of precision that no one ever dreamt of in a prior conflict." By the time Saddam's government collapsed last April, JDAMs--like stealth fighters, the Patriot missile, and the 14th-century English longbow--had achieved weapons superstardom, treated to glowing profiles in Newsweek and Slate and pictured as lovingly as any supermodel.

But JDAMs weren't the brainchild of crack scientists toiling in some defense contractor's generously funded skunk works. The person most responsible for their development was a 57-year-old Department of Defense program manager named Terry Little. Several years ago, Little was charged with coming up with finding a contractor and a contract to create something that could make dumb bombs smart. He didn't want to go through the normal Department of Defense procedures: After eight years in the Air Force and nearly two decades in the Pentagon, he'd seen dozens of projects end up over budget and underperforming. So when it came time to develop JDAMs, he set about doing things differently. Instead of demanding that contractors meet highly specific and technical requirements, Little, realizing that prices would drop if he just told potential contractors what the department needed in plain language, was able to call for a rebidding on the main JDAM contract, and see the competing companies come up with their own innovations, the price dropping by nearly half.

The modest Little refuses to take much credit: "Most of the real work was done by other people. I just had a vision and a willingness to do battle with the system." Others think him too humble. "It's really this one guy, Terry Little, who's responsible," says Steve Kelman, who ran the Office of Federal Procurement at Bill Clinton's Office of Management and Budget.

Smart bombs, it turns out, require smart bureaucrats. But federal workers like Little are a vanishing breed. "There are lots of DOD contracts that run into big trouble," Kelman points out, "and one of the main reasons is that there aren't enough good people coming in." For years, Little didn't have anyone learning at his feet. Because of budget restrictions and lack of forethought at the highest levels of the Pentagon, he wasn't allowed to hire a single person between the time he joined the JDAM project in 1993 and the time he left in 2001 to head over to the Missile Defense Agency. By 2001, in fact, he didn't have anyone under age 30 on his 70-person team.

This problem exists all over government. For most of the past decade, the federal government, its hands tied by a hiring freeze, has done a terrible job of recruiting highly talented young people--and it's paying the price. The federal civil service now employs more people in their 60s than in their 20s and, in five years, half of the civil service (including Little) will be eligible to retire. In short, the federal government is now at a recruiting zero hour.

But as Little points out, the current situation is "both a challenge and an opportunity."

If the government does a good job of bringing in people, it could transform the relationship between itself and the taxpayers who support it, at a time when it plays a more important role in people's lives than at any point in a generation. If the government does a bad job, that, too, will transform the relationship between the government and taxpayers--by making it dramatically worse.

Fortunately, a few agencies have recognized the problem and are actively working to fix it. The General Accounting Office, for example, has developed a terrific record of recruiting and retaining, and other agencies, including the Department of Defense, have started working to lower some of the bureaucratic obstacles to effective hiring currently written into law. But these pioneers will need to teach the rest of the government a few lessons it seems reluctant to learn.

Talent Show

Three big problems make it hard for the federal government to attract top talent. One is that very few people are aware of government jobs that match their skills and goals. Another is that those people who do learn about and apply for such jobs are forced through a Byzantine and demoralizing application process. And finally, those who do get hired are often herded into stultifying grunt work and saddled with a pay and promotion system that seems created for 1950s clerks--which it actually was.

To get people in the front door, you must first actively recruit them. That's why most corporations scour college campuses looking for bright young people and are always on the lookout for talent they can steal from their rivals. But very few people know that there are jobs available or how to get them. Aside from the armed forces, federal agencies make little effort to educate the public. (Everyone has seen ads for the Marines--but have you ever seen one for the Department of Education?) And the public isn't well educated about what's out there. According to a poll by the Partnership for Public Service in October 2002, most Americans say that they know vastly less about jobs in the federal government than jobs in the private sector.

Like a lot of problems in the public and private sector, of course, this one begins--at least in part--at the top. The last five men to win the presidency have all run against the bureaucracy, trashing government instead of telling people about all the opportunities available there. Ronald Reagan stacked his administration with anti-government radicals and even cut off recruiting for many social programs. VISTA, the urban social-work program, had to go without promotional posters for five years of the Reagan era. George H. W. Bush was hardly better, nor was Bill Clinton. Running against the civil service helped Clinton earn his New Democrat bona fides; when he talked about the civil service, he spent most of his time telling people about the jobs he'd cut, not the great ones they could get. (Like his predecessors, Clinton was praising the civil service by the time he left office, but with less vigor than he'd attacked it when he entered.) George W. Bush has pushed useful reforms, including exempting the Department of Homeland Security from many of the rules that make it harder to recruit top talent--and is trying to do with the same thing for the Pentagon right now. But he has also been harshly critical of the civil service and, despite his current popularity, has not rallied Americans even to join the military.

Moreover, given the frequent civil-service hiring freezes of the past two decades, current employees tend to covet available promotions and are eager to funnel colleagues into the few openings that exist. For those inclined, it's easy to make sure their friends find out about jobs first and help them through the necessary hoops. And many are indeed so disposed: According to a 2002 Merit Systems Protection Board report, 62 percent of unionized federal employees believe that their organizations should promote internal candidates before even considering outsiders. Partly as a result, only half of all federal job openings are open to candidates from outside the government.

It doesn't help that advantages which have attracted generations of people to government work--stability and benefits--are less of a draw to today's young workers. When asked what they want most out of their jobs, people in their 20s rank "opportunity to develop skills" first and "opportunity for promotion" second, well ahead of "benefits" or "job security." Those who gravitate toward public work are frequently not the country's brightest, which brings employee quality down--and helps keep it there. Bad or bored bureaucrats on the inside drive away people on the outside; top talent leaves or never comes, while low talent comes and never leaves.

The numbers are daunting: Only about one in six college students expresses any interest at all in the civil service. Worse, the percentage of students graduating from top public policy graduate schools and going on to work for the government has dropped by a third in the last two and a half decades. Only about one in four winners of United States Truman Scholarships--awards given to promising undergraduates aiming for public-service careers--goes on to full-time work in the civil service, even though the program tracks most of them into federal government internships after college. "Sometimes students see people who go and work for the government as fuddy-duddy bureaucrats not bright enough to work elsewhere," says Nadinne Cruz, the director of the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.

Maybe the most discouraging statistic comes from Paul Light at the Brookings Institution. According to one 2002 survey, the number of people in the government who say that they come in to work solely for the paycheck exceeds those who say the government gives them the opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile--a chilling insight into both the culture of government work and the kind of people who stay in. According to that same study, 70 percent of Americans believe that federal employees are motivated primarily by job security.

The Outsiders

Those still interested in government service and able to learn about job openings must still surmount a few more hurdles. Many eager applicants, for example, can't decipher federal job descriptions, which often seem written in a code intelligible only to government employees and, consequently, their friends.

It is instructive to compare public and private job applications. Let's say you want to work at Southwest Airlines in customer service. Your first step is the Web site which directs you to Southwest's "People Department." There you find the image of a smiling woman right next to a link called "luv your job." Click on the link and you get a list of bullet-points explaining what talents you'll need, such as "excellent communication skills" and "typing ability or keyboard skills." There follows a clear, simple list of the steps to apply and a list of reasons to do so, including "FREE UNLIMITED space available travel anywhere Southwest Airlines flies!"

Now let's say you want to apply for a job in customer service at HUD. You click on the jobs link and get the following warning: "You have requested a document that is external to HUD's World Wide Web site. HUD cannot attest to the accuracy of information provided by linked sites." That's startling and confusing enough, but if you bother to click to the next page you'll be faced by a complicated form asking your location and status, including whether you are "a current Federal employee in an excepted service position covered by an interchange agreement."

If you're intrepid enough to ignore that gobbledygook and press forward, you'll eventually reach the page with the actual job listings. Click on the "customer service representative" tag and you get to yet another page with a barrage of technical information. After searching for a minute, you will probably find the next magic button: "View announcement for PO-DEU-2003-0007ABZ." Bingo! You're finally at the job description.

And even here, the description is pretty impenetrable. It includes "Promotion Potential: GS-07," a phrase unfamiliar to those unfamiliar with government classifications and the system which places almost all employees on a scale from GS-1 (entry-level clerks without high-school degrees) to GS-15 (experienced managers). The job description begins, "The incumbent is the first point of contact for HUD's customers and the Department, and will function as the generalist who is generally knowledgeable of HUD services."

Even those aspiring to be generally knowledgeable generalists still have to convince HUD that they meet the job requirements. Where Southwest asks for "excellent communication skills," HUD asks for "Ability to communicate orally with others in person and over the phone," and then requires backup in the form of "separate narrative statements describing how their experience satisfies each Quality Ranking Factor (QRF)/Knowledge, Skill Ability (KSA) by describing: 1) where or how the particular KSA was acquired, 2) where and how the particular KSA was used."

You then have to muck through 1,992 words on veterans' preferences, special advantages to displaced federal workers applying under the "Career Transition Assistance Program/Interagency Career Transition Assistance Program (CTAP)/(ICTAP)," and the following useful tidbit: "Giving your social security number is voluntary. However, we cannot process your application without it." At long last, you find where to send your application. If you have stuck it out that long, you too may have a chance to become PO-DEU-2003-0007ABZ--assuming you still want to.

The Gordian Knot

But job applications are just the first tedious part of the process. Before hiring anyone, agencies require approval from their personnel departments, which in turn cannot go beyond congressional appropriations. If the agency does get approval, its supervisors must write a position description, get the vacancy announcement out (wherever "out" means), rate the applicants, make doubly sure that they haven't passed over any veterans, interview the candidates, get higher-level approval for the hire, and then complete the required background checks; each step typically taking between two and four weeks. Candidates for the Senior Executive Service (SES)--the top layer of career appointees, who are above GS-15s--must pass muster by yet another review board, composed of SES members. Not surprisingly, the process usually entails huge backlogs. The Defense Security Service, for example, revealed in 2001 that it had 440,000 people awaiting security clearance. The most basic clearances can take several months, and clearances for the most senior positions take, on average, more than a year. If long delays don't sap an applicant's enthusiasm, background checks often do: Many people are scared to apply to the IRS, for example, because all hires face a thorough back audit and scrutiny--a stressful experience even for those who do pay their taxes. Overall, it takes an average of about three months for the government to hire anyone, an untenable delay for many applicants--especially younger job-seekers. Seventy percent of college students say that they are unwilling to wait more than four weeks for an offer.

Why is the hiring process so complex? The chief culprit is a set of rules several thousand pages long, which politicians generally find much easier to add to than subtract from. Some of them date back to 1883, two years after a disappointed patronage seeker shot President Garfield--an event that helped to spur the creation of the modern civil service system. But since regulations are easier to add than to remove, Congress has repeatedly solved minor issues by stacking new layers of regulations on top of old. "Federal recruiting has always been a mystery wrapped in an enigma, or, actually, a mystery wrapped in detailed rules. And, like so much of what the government does, the rules are always a good idea to start with but then you add them all together and you have got quite a hurdle," says Robert Knisely, a veteran of seven different cabinet agencies.

Everyone knows how hard the rules make it to fire incompetent bureaucrats. But they also make it hard to hire competent ones. For example, the government has extremely complicated rules on hiring veterans, with different points and restrictions added depending on when and where they served. The official handbook on the subject is three times as long as this article and includes such provisions as awarding 10 points to the scored application of the mothers of a deceased veteran who "died under honorable conditions while on active duty during a war or during the period April 28, 1952, through July 1, 1955, or in a campaign or expedition for which a campaign medal has been authorized." That rule may make sense; some of the eligible mothers suffered substantially because their sons fought for the country. But making personnel officers keep up with a 15,000-word rulebook of veterans' preferences--not to mention scores of other rules, regulations, and stipulations--is not a recipe for speedy or soundly based selection.

Calling Alexander the Great

That's not to say that civil services rules are irretrievably Procrustean. It is important to insulate the bureaucracy from the worst political pressures--no one wants an Office of Management and Budget producing reports that simply rationalize current administration policies--and it would be a sad day when political appointees could fire civil service employees on a whim. But while the rules do largely keep politics out of the civil service, they also tend to keep out the best young talent.

One solution would be to hire half the civil service on two- or three-year renewable contracts. Then it would not be necessary to put poor performers through the exhaustive dismissal process--at a cost of $100k+ for junior grade employees. Their superiors could simply decline to renew them. This would create some knowledge gaps and reduce the incentive to apply for people focused on job security. But it would dramatically increase the number of openings for top young talent while increasing the incentives for high performance. People focused on job security, who may not be the most ambitious applicants in the first place, could apply for the permanent, but usually less rewarding and closely scrutinized, positions.

But even without such major overhauls, the rules are still decidedly too complicated and the people who should have a real incentive to untangle them seem uninterested. Cabinet members have the most at stake, but the average such officer stays for about two years, the first six months of which she spends trying to locate the cafeteria and figuring out whom she can trust. Then, in the next year and a half, she has to focus on making an impact and setting her legacy--and every minute spent recruiting talent is a minute that's not going to get her on C-SPAN or in for lunch with the president. Nor does Congress possess any real incentive for reform. Indeed, few constituents are pressuring members for action on that front. There are probably more chicory-grower activists. When I called the press office of a senator who has led Hill debate on the issue, the person who answered the phone asked "Why are you calling? I mean, nobody from the media calls about this."

The only people with real stakes in civil service reform are government employee unions, and their principal stake is stasis. A reform that brings new people in more quickly can threaten the folks already inside. At the very least, it disrupts a system that they have learned how to play. Moreover, public employees don't have the same incentives to bring in top talent as their private-sector counterparts. In the private sector, more talent increases the odds that everyone will get rich and decreases the chance of bankruptcy. But government employees will have the same jobs, and the same paychecks, no matter how good their colleagues are.

Pay Me or Play Me?

One obvious corrective to government's hiring woes would simply be to raise pay levels. But it isn't as important, or as unambiguously useful, to raise salaries as one might think. For one thing, federal salaries are already pretty generous: The average executive-branch employee earns more than $54,000 a year, and "average" embraces many very low-level jobs. The average librarian working for the United States government makes $65,000; the average astronomer comes in at around $100,000. In Washington, D.C., because a high proportion of senior bureaucrats work there and because of special bonuses granted to people in areas with high living costs, the average salary exceeds $70,000. Moreover, government jobs offer pretty good benefits, including the opportunity to buy into the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan, the largest plan in the nation. One might not get the concierge service formerly available at Enron, but government isn't particularly likely to collapse and take employee pensions with it, either.

Still, in several areas, such as computer technology, the government could no doubt attract better talent by raising wages. But since it can't afford to raise salaries across the board, it should take two intermediate steps. First, the government could expand student-loan repayment programs, which agencies can legally offer but rarely do. This would get extra money to the young people who need it most. Second, it should pay bonuses to high performers, raising the incentives for ambitious young people who know that they will do well wherever they go to work.

A practice known as "pay banding" has had some success in the Defense Department. Under this system, salaries are allowed to fluctuate within several broad bands--instead of being locked into rigid increments based primarily on length of tenure. Jacques Gansler, Clinton's undersecretary for acquisition technology and logistics, created an optional pay-banding system, potentially creating incentives for defense-acquisition employees to work harder and for hard workers to come in. These reforms got a boost from successful demonstration programs at the Navy's China Lake and San Diego weapons labs, where for 20 years the Navy has assigned employees into broad pay bands, instead of the rigid GS system--allowing salaries to fluctuate much more than in the rest of government where civil-service rules fix raises and promotions at very specific levels, a reform that has yielded significant increases in worker quality and only a 3 percent increase in overall salary costs.

Still, Gansler left with the Clinton administration, and only a small percentage of eligible employees have enrolled in the program he created. That's the overall government trend. Currently, inflation and location bonuses account for more than 80 percent of all pay adjustments in the federal government--which may make everyone a little bit happy, but it doesn't help to bring in and retain stars. A recent Partnership for Public Service poll showed that, by a ratio of 4-to-1, managers working in the federal government believe that the private sector does a better job than their own system at rewarding outstanding employees.

Show Me The Work

Not even student-loan repayments and merit bonuses would be remotely as much of a draw as giving bright young recruits useful work. The White House and the Congress offer young people terrific mobility and opportunity--and that's where they usually go. (The same, of course, is true in the private sector, where a 28-year-old can become general manager of the Red Sox and a kid out of college can launch a multi-million-dollar software firm.) But within the federal bureaucracy, climbing is slow. Only about 1 percent of the people who make it into the SES are under 40 years old. And even they are stuck under a layer of political appointees.

More importantly, young people have the sense that one can get trapped by government work. A recent Partnership for Public Service poll found that, by a greater-than-30-to-1 ratio, recent college graduates believe that the private sector is better than the government in allowing employees to take initiative. Young government employees often come to the same conclusion. Carlos Cruz-Abrams, for example, is a University of Virginia law graduate who joined the INS two years ago under a special recruitment program but is now jumping ship to head into private law. For him, as with most of his other departing young colleagues, money didn't matter nearly as much as opportunity and novel work, which he didn't get even though he entered on one of the INS's fastest tracks. "I don't want to be doing the same thing in 20 years," he says.

Tellingly, retention rates for Presidential Management Interns--talented recruits brought in through special hiring authorities and allowed to rotate through different agencies--match retention rates for regular government employees for their first three years, after which the program's success collapses, largely because the participants don't see adequate opportunities for advancement. Shihka Bhatnagar, a former intern now at the Department of Commerce, knows that she will leave in a year--not for more money, but because she wants to run something big, rather than crawl up into a GS-15 spot only to continue toiling under a revolving cast of political appointees. "When I'm 50, I want to be in control of what I'm doing," says Bhatnagar.

One way to give such clear-minded purposeful people that chance would be to create a job resembling that of a permanent undersecretary in Britain's civil service, a top-ranking official who moves up through the civil service to a position directing an entire department. Beneath him are a series of deputy undersecretaries, who have significantly more power than members of the SES, which is the highest formally organized civil-service cadre in the United States. Unfortunately, there has been little movement here to create a comparable system--perhaps because it's the political appointees who make most of the rules.

Ask What You Can Do For Your Country

Government also has to convince young people that doing federal work really matters. Under both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, young people were inspired to come to Washington; following Kennedy's famous speech imploring Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you," federal government job applications doubled. "It was exciting to work for the United States government in the 1960s. We walked to the office each morning alive with the sense that we had important business to attend to," wrote former Peace Corps official and Washington Monthly founder Charles Peters in his autobiography, Tilting at Windmills.

A more recent success story is that of Colin Powell at the State Department. Like Kennedy, Powell had both star power and an interest in attracting talent. When he took office, the department was spending a paltry $70,000 a year on recruitment; today State sponsors a flashy ad campaign urging people to join "the front lines of diplomacy." Powell's State Department has also become the most aggressive federal agency when it comes to offering to help repay student loans. These efforts have brought results: During Powell's first year on the job, the number of people who signed up to take the Foreign Service exam nearly doubled, and it has climbed since.

Even agencies not traditionally viewed as sexy--and which are not run by international superstars--can transform themselves. Case in point: The General Accounting Office. Fourteen years ago, this magazine lambasted the GAO as a "one-eyed watchdog," running errands for Congress and publishing half-baked exposes that "went for the capillaries." But now, the GAO is one of the hottest recruiters on public-policy graduate school campuses across the country. Last year the ratio of applications to the number of job offers was about 8 to 1, more or less the same as MIT's undergraduate admissions. "They do the best job by far," says Alexandra Bennett, the assistant career director at Syracuse's Maxwell School.

The GAO also gets the details right. It writes clearer job descriptions than those of most other government agencies; and its promotional materials appeal to young men and women's patriotism and sense of service: Those who join up, the GAO's promotional materials explain, will work to "ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the AMERICAN PEOPLE." (The boring label "General Accounting Office" never appears on flyers--just "GAO.")

Unlike most agencies, the GAO recognizes that many young people today want to move around in their work: Every new employee moves to at least three projects in his first two years. "They throw you in headfirst," says Chad Davenport, a new hire. Davenport, a 1994 Duke graduate, says that if he tells someone at a bar where he works, they generally don't know what it is, "but they think it's interesting when you tell them what you really do." Staffers have fun, too. This fall, the GAO printed up paperwork for a fake university in England called the Y'Hica Institute for the Visual Arts and wangled $55,000 of grants from the Department of Education. (One of the fictitious grant applicants was named Susan M. Collins--after the Maine senator who had requested that the GAO look for holes in its student-loan programs.)

Vote Barney Bureaucrat!

Among other things, September 11 illustrated in the most dramatic fashion possible how important it is to have talented civil servants. The INS could have prevented the terrorists from even entering the country. The CIA and the FBI might have found them while here. The FAA could have stopped them from getting on the planes. And the Department of Treasury could have tracked their finances much more effectively.

Government offers no specific product by which it can be judged. People know whom to credit when Microsoft puts out a better word processor or when Ford builds a more efficient and sleeker car. But government's accomplishments are often more diffuse--who thanks Fannie Mae for the availability of low-cost home mortgages?--while its failures get far more press than its successes.

But as the GAO and others have shown, good hiring generates a positive feedback loop. Talented recruits improve an agency, and better agencies attract more talented recruits. If the rest of the government can apply that lesson as it faces the approaching wave of retirement, public administration could be transformed and regain some of its old mystique.

Three years ago, the current president--the son of a former president and the grandson of a senator--ran as an outsider, emphasizing his non-Washington roots and playing up what can only be called a mediocre career as a private businessman. We'll know that government has truly transformed itself when that pattern reverses--when people exaggerate their connections to it, rather than their distance. Perhaps one day we'll have candidates who have started their careers in the GAO or the State Department, and who make that their campaign centerpiece.

Or maybe one day there'll be a candidate who has begun his career in local government and then moved to a top federal job--Assistant Secretary of the Navy, for instance. Perhaps he later becomes governor of a big state like New York, then goes on to run for president by emphasizing his inside mastery of the system. And maybe there will be enough latent trust in government to elect him once, twice, or even four times. Then -- who knows? -- he might do great things with and for government.

Related Programs