Federal Diary: Luring top young talent to public service

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

If President Obama's plan to attract lots of bright people to work for the feds by making "government cool again" doesn't quite do the trick, money might.

Congress is considering legislation to create a program that makes such good sense, you might wonder why no one thought of it before. The Roosevelt Scholars program would draw young people to key positions in the federal service with the promise of paying their college expenses.

What the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) does for the military, the scholars program would do for the civilian ranks. At least that's the idea.

Here's how it would work:

A student would be nominated by someone with knowledge of the candidate's academic experiences. A nonprofit foundation created by the legislation would conduct the selection process. Those chosen would win a scholarship that would cover full tuition and a stipend for living expenses and books. The amount of the scholarship would vary depending on the school attended, but the maximum annual award would not exceed $60,000.

That's no small change, even given the high cost of higher education these days.

Such a generous allowance means the scholarships would be in great demand. But the supply promises to be very small: In the first year, about 50 scholarships would be awarded.

Under the legislation, Congress would authorize $10 million to establish an endowment that would generate its own interest income, perhaps allowing more students to become Roosevelt Scholars.

"Too often, agencies lack the most important resource in getting the job done -- the right people with the right skills. The Roosevelt Scholars Act would provide the Federal government with another tool to use in competing with the private sector for the next generation of top-flight talent," said a statement from Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) plans to introduce legislation Tuesday that would establish the program.

This month, university presidents, former government officials and others endorsed the program in a letter to the senators, saying it would "attract top students from our nation's leading universities to solve some of the most difficult challenges facing America and the world today."

Among those signing the letter was Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that works on federal workplace issues. "We see the scholarship program as key to building a pipeline of mission-critical talent into the federal government," Stier said. His organization estimates that federal agencies will need more than 273,000 new hires through 2012 in areas such as engineering, medicine, public health, foreign languages and information technology.

The Senate bill would apply to undergraduate and graduate students. Only graduate students would be eligible under a similar measure introduced in the House in July by Reps. David E. Price (D-N.C.) and Michael N. Castle (R-Del.).

Rating the agencies

A Gallup survey of more than 40,000 households found that the U.S. military is "the highest rated sector of government by far."

"In contrast," the Gallup report continues, "federal agencies, while faring slightly better than Congress, are not viewed very positively or negatively by Americans." Forty-six percent of poll respondents didn't have much good or bad to say about federal agencies, but unfortunately, negative views outran positive ones by 34 percent to 20 percent.

The high-neutral rating provides "an amazing branding opportunity for federal agencies," said Bob Torongo, a former Labor Department economist who is Gallup's lead analyst on the project. Managers have the opportunity "to craft more awareness of their agencies in a positive light," he added.

As might be expected during a time of war, the Defense Department was most cited as the agency most important to the future of the United States. Interestingly, the Education Department, which some Republicans once wanted to kill, came in second.

For those thinking of joining the workforce, the CIA is seen as "the federal employer of choice." The Pentagon and the CIA also are perceived as the most prestigious agencies. That's a pretty good comeback for the CIA, whose effectiveness was questioned after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"No other federal agencies elicit such a strong response from Americans," the report said of the CIA, "with the slight exception of the Department of Education among young adults."

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