How to update government service

September 5, 2013

Donald F. Kettl is the dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and an author of several books on government and management issues. In this interview, Kettl speaks about government service and federal leadership challenges with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What skills do young people need in order to be prepared for government service?

©James Kegley
©James Kegley

A. One of our goals is to train our students to solve problems that haven’t even been invented yet. Look at September 10, 2001 and ask how many people were focusing on homeland security--and then look at how much has changed. Today’s graduates are likely to face problems that will emerge long after they’re out of school. It’s important to provide a broader background, a sense of history and perspective that gives students the skills that they need to be successful in helping to transform the way in which government programs operate.

A great deal has been said about the next generation wanting to make a difference. How do you help your students see the connection between that interest and government service?

One of the things that I find so enormously encouraging is how many younger Americans are geared up for trying to make a difference in government service. They still view public service as something that they want to pursue and they’re still excited. Quite frankly, the biggest impediment to making government service an important career option isn’t so much that students are less interested in it as that they just find the process of entry so incredibly difficult. We need to make the road of entry into government service clearer and more accessible.

Aside from fixing the hiring process, what are the other challenges facing the federal government?

We have a group of baby boomers inching ever closer to retirement and an enormous challenge of not only replacing them, but retooling the workforce. The nature of the job is different than the one that the baby boomers were hired to perform. We need to focus on improving acquisition management. We need to pay attention to information technology issues, from problems of cybersecurity and cyber management to the process of using information to connect more effectively with citizens. There also needs to be much more conversation about the real human capital strategy focused on how best to organize government’s work and government’s workforce so that the people are ultimately served. 

Do you have examples of agencies using performance management data to be more effective?

We’ve seen great examples where managers take performance data and use it to provide important insights or improve the way they do their jobs. Even though the Transportation Security Administration is much maligned, they are paying a lot of attention to what works and what doesn’t--everything from how best to speed up the security lines to how to improve the odds of catching the bad guys. They have new systems that allow people to be prescreened and have security checks run in advance that will take a significant load off of the airline screeners.

You can also see tremendous improvements in the way in which the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was hugely criticized after Hurricane Katrina, is now using performance metrics to strengthen the way that they get aid to people on the front lines after disasters and to strengthen their partnership with the private sector.

What advice do you have for federal leaders who are managing in this time of budget constraints, pay freezes and furloughs?

There’s been a sense that we just have to get through the next two months, the next three months, the next six months, the next fiscal year--and then things will go back to normal. I have this awful sinking feeling that what we’re seeing is normal, so trying to wait it out is not an effective strategy.

But for people who really want to make a difference, this is an incredibly exciting time. There is an opportunity for genuine innovation and leadership. Leaders can help their people do their jobs better. Even if federal workers are not being rewarded as they should with pay, at least they can find personal reward in the work that they’re doing on behalf of citizens. And the din of Washington politics can often give leaders surprising extra latitude to lead.

Read also:

Why we serve

A great speech on why to go into public service

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