Linda Bilmes is a professor at the John. F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, an author and an expert on civil service issues. She spoke about the need for government reform 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. It has been decades since the federal civil service system has been reformed. What changes would you recommend?
A. In the private sector, high-performing companies typically invest significantly in their human resources and see their people as treasures, not as costs. We have to change the way we think about public employees. There is a whole range of tools that are not being used effectively in government — from recruiting and hiring, to mentoring and evaluating, to promoting and creating excitement in the ranks.
Q. What needs to happen to strengthen the leadership capacity of federal managers?
A. Federal managers don’t know how to deal with poor performers, and this is a real morale drag for those who are working hard and trying to do their best. I have long urged that we create a training certification for managers on how to supervise. There is a lot of skepticism among government employees about whether their supervisors are fair, effective or know how to promote the best people.
In my experience, a large percentage of managers are good at doing the technical aspects of their jobs, but they’re not so good at managing and explaining to other people what they need to do. There is a great deal of frustration among employees who say to their managers, “I’m working hard, why aren’t you happy with what I’m doing?” Managers need to learn how to say, “Here are all of the things that you need to do, here are the skills that you need to have, and here is the way you can get the right training.”
Q. Is the government doing a good job of attracting young talent?
A. The way we recruit young people into government continues to be what my students refer to as a black hole. At the Kennedy School, we have a lot of students who want to work for the government, but they don’t know how to navigate the system. They send in their resumes but have no idea if they’re going to hear back from anyone. The recruiting system is profoundly in need of reform.
We did a survey of 1,200 college students for my book, “The People Factor,” which is co-authored with W. Scott Gould. It revealed that the two most important things students want in a job are an organization that really cares about them and that offers them the opportunity to rise to the top. Although the majority of students we surveyed were willing in theory to consider working for the federal government, they felt that government provided far less of these attributes than the non-profit and private sectors.
Q. Are there other barriers to bringing the new generation into government?
A. Today’s young people are socially minded and want to make a difference, but they are impatient. They are tech-savvy and intolerant of technological lapses, and they’re entrepreneurial. They want to hurry up and solve a problem. So if they’re interested in housing issues, they’re much more likely to start a new non-profit on a shoestring budget than to spend nine months trying to get a job at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
If we want to attract the cream of the crop of this generation, the government needs to step up its game technologically and change the way agencies work to permit pockets of what I call “intrapreneurship,” where people can create new things and run with new ideas. While this is challenging in some areas, like national security, it’s feasible to imagine such pockets in many areas of government, including in education, health care, transportation, housing, economic development and veterans affairs.
Q. Have you seen agencies rise to the occasion?
A. The federal government is vast and there are always special cases, but they are the exceptions, not the rule. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs runs neighborhood-based “Vet Centers,” which are pretty successful walk-in places for veterans and their families to get certain kinds of help. There are innovations happening at the Patent and Trademark Office. Right now, some of the scientific government labs are hugely exciting places to work and there is a great deal of innovation and creativity. These are linked to the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NOAA and a number of other technical agencies. But this needs to become the norm rather than the exception.
Q. What can be done to restore trust in the federal government?
A. The president could choose to highlight civil service workers who have made important contributions. Why not invite a federal employee to the state dinner for the French president? Our presidents have shied away from providing personal recognition to celebrate federal employees, because it wouldn’t be popular with the general public. I’m not talking about any particular president, I’m talking about all of them. They may not recognize what a huge boost to morale it would be if civil servants were feted for their accomplishments. Making people aware of all of the great things that government workers do could help restore trust in government.