How the Obama administration woos new recruits

November 30, 2011

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, right, is a passionate defender of federal employees. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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So how does the Obama administration counter current economic and political realities to woo young job applicants?

If you’re John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, you needle Capitol Hill a bit and then try tugging at heart strings.

“As important as it is to make it easy for students to join federal service, we also need to make it attractive,” Berry told educators gathered at a NASA conference Tuesday. “Politicians often don’t make this easy. For decades, federal employees have been used as political footballs – by both parties. We have not gotten the respect we deserve.

“Despite all this, it’s easy to see how cool federal jobs can be,” he said. “This year alone, I could tell you about the federal team that caught up with Whitey Bulger, or Osama Bin Laden. Or I could tell you about my own 25 years in public service.

“I’ve been to the North and South Poles, up the Amazon and down the Nile. Or I could reach a few years further back and remind you that Neil Armstrong was a federal employee. And he was launched into space by a mission control team with an average age of 26.”

Berry’s trips to the top and bottom of the Earth and up the world’s longest river came during stints at the Interior and Treasury departments over the course of the Clinton administration.

And while he invoked the work of Navy SEAL Team 6 and the first human to walk on the moon, Berry added that the appeal of government service runs deeper.

“It is bound up in our national heritage, in the revolutionary idea that ‘We the People’ are capable of governing ourselves,” he said.

This next passage from Berry’s prepared text gets even loftier, but tries to tie his message to Obama’s campaign pledge:

Every federal job, at its core, is about protecting the American people, and assuring that America’s promise passes on to future generations. We carry forward the promise that we will be judged by what we do, not who we are; the promise that every generation will have better opportunities than the last; the promise that everyone can participate in public life.

That’s why working for government is cool.

We in federal government take on the biggest and the most complex problems of our time. How do we defend our nation against shadowy terrorist networks? How do we assure every American has quality, affordable health care? How do we regulate a fast-moving, interconnected economy?

These are questions that matter greatly to the lives and livelihoods of our people. So that’s what I would say to the students you work with: If you want to have the broadest reach, and do the most good for the most people, the Federal government is the place. The scale of your impact with us will be larger than anywhere else.”

Maybe you want to follow in the footsteps of the civilian and military employees who split the atom, broke the sound barrier, sequenced the genome and invented the Internet. Put your tire tracks all over Mars. Reach out and touch an asteroid. Peer back through time and space to the beginnings of the Universe.

Or maybe you want to stick a little closer to home. Negotiate treaties. Monitor elections. Design the next hundred-dollar bill. Usher our American values safely through the challenges of this new century and interconnected world.

Berry used equally lofty rhetoric during a similar speech in October, saying that today’s generation “has a special and unique responsibility to the future, to children and generations yet to come, because . . . they will need to know that our light was bright and it was true and we built our lighthouse well. Our men and women in the civil service do that.”

But considering the economic and political climate of the moment, is Berry’s pitch too naive and pie-in-the-sky ... or just right? The comments section awaits your thoughts.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.
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