Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Do We Need a Public Service Academy?

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle over the proposed Public Service Academy. The brainchild of Chris Meyers Asch, who was recently profiled in the New York Times, the academy aspires to become the nation's preeminent institution focused on training, educating, and encouraging young people passionate about public service careers. Specifically, it would offer a free four-year education in exchange for five years of government service.

Supporters -- and there are many, including some of the most powerful members of Congress -- argue that the academy would have both substantive and symbolic benefits, among them, a cohort of graduates every year who would work in a range of federal, state and local agencies, as well as a flagship institution that would help revamp the rather tattered image that government work has (although that may be changing, given the resurgence of interest in the Obama campaign and, soon, his presidency).

There are those, however, who argue against the idea (one is Pablo Eisenberg who recently wrote an op-ed on the issue for the Chronicle of Philanthropy). Some conservatives believe that despite Chris's good intentions and remarkable entrepreneurism in getting this off the ground -- it smacks of yet another DC-based, bureaucratic institution (one conservative friend/critic called it "another boondoggle that will cost the taxpayers millions"). Some liberals argue that it would focus too much on the elite kids or kids who already have the incentive and encouragement to pursue these kinds of jobs. Moreover, it still doesn't address the image (and some would say, the real) problem with government jobs. That is, they're low-paying, mired in bureaucracy, and tend to value seniority and politics, rather than results, when it comes to promotions. (It's not a coincidence that some of the most ardent supporters of government service are those who've had the privilege of serving in higher-level, higher-paying, and more exciting positions, rather than as mid-level bureaucrats.)

Given all the research demonstrating that young people -- Millennials in particular (see post on this above) -- embrace a workstyle that's almost completely antithetical to the culture that currently reigns supreme in these kinds of institutions, it's hard to determine whether the academy, despite its best intentions to promote government service, will be able to keep young people from -- as one good friend and colleague who attempted a similar national effort a few years ago said -- "tearing their hair out, suffering needlessly, and then leaving to find a job with real impact" once they're done with their service.

Others argue that the academy dilutes the efforts already going on across the country to encourage young people to consider public service careers. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, notes that the country already has about 150 schools of public administration who are trying to accomplish that goal. Others, however, say that those schools aren't doing enough to help young people pursue government careers and that initiatives like the Public Service Academy are helping to shake them out of their complacency.

These discussions have ignited quite a bit of back-and-forth in the blogosphere and elsewhere, so I thought I'd add to it by asking: Where's the similar effort to change government so that it is more appealing to people -- not just young people -- as a long-term career choice? To date, the efforts to attract people to government service have largely skewed toward expensive ad campaigns targeted toward recruitment, with relatively little attention to addressing the underlying reasons why people aren't interested in these jobs in the first place. Yes, it's good to try to burnish the image of government service, but if those efforts aren't coupled by equal attention to changing the culture once people are in those jobs, they will most likely become even more disillusioned, and ultimately, leave.

So, here's hoping that the same folks who are behind these kinds of initiatives have (or will have) an equal interest in government reform so that those who come into government service won't go out just as quickly.


  1. Thank you for bringing some attention to the Public Service Academy initiative, Cynthia. As one of the people behind this effort, I want to address your last point about how we transform government service itself (as opposed to just its image) because I think you unfairly imply that the Academy is simply about image-burnishing.

    We do not pretend that the Academy alone will transform government culture. We see it as part of a broad rethinking of how we approach government and how we deliver public services. But bringing in strong people who have a deeply-imbedded culture of service and a long-term commitment to serve the nation could have a slow but powerful effect on government culture.

    Think of Teach for America. TFA's goal from the beginning has been to transform public education; from the beginning, critics have worried that throwing people in for two-year stints would have no long-term impact on education or teaching. But what has happened is that over time these TFA teachers have stuck it out, dealt with the bureaucracy, worked their way up, and now are assuming greater and greater positions of authority. They are now in a position to make systemic changes that could revolutionize public education.

    Similarly, we think that over time Public Service Academy graduates will help inspire people to see public service in a different way and have higher expectations for it. As they rise up to greater positions of authority, they will be able to implement changes that can transform government culture from within. It won't happen overnight, but over time we will see dramatic differences.

  2. Hi Chris:
    Thanks for posting (even before I got the word out!). I think your point is a good one and well-taken. And I didn't mean to imply that PSA is only or all about image burnishing.. at all. Rather, I was trying to see if all of us could, in addition to trying to help recruit folks to public service, make sure that help to ensure that the institutions we're recruiting folks to are going to be places where recruits want to stay. That's not your job but the job of all those who care about public service.

  3. Great post. I think you identified the key challenges -- to make government appealing to young people and to attract people to public service. My point of view is that we ought to use as many tools as we can to improve the quality of public service, whether it's by attracting top-notch students and leaders, or improving government incentives.

  4. Your post is really on target and the response is also telling. The US Public Service Academy (USPSA) is going to be a multi-BILLION DOLLAR (emphasis mine) project. Although some fear was focused on the privileged few gaining access, there are actually rules in place that indicate that over 30% of the incoming students must be from disadvantaged family backgrounds. There is no obligation for Service, and no definition of what that service might be. The projection is for the USPSA to be modeled on the 5 federal Service Academies (Annapolis, West Point, Kings Point, etc). They then eliminate the SERVICE part of the Service Academy.
    As an Annapolis Graduate myself, I have an understanding of Service. The most cursory examination of the proposed program shows that is will only accomplish giving Congressmen and Senators the power to hand out $100,000 scholarships each year. I doubt that it was Chris's goal, but when a Billion dollars is on the line, you are going to get some less than scrupulous hands reaching into the money pot. Offering money and free scholarships to "Shake them out of their complacency" will never work. We already have too many complacent people in Government right now. You want the Non-Complacent. The go-getters. The entrepreneurs. The proposed program does not lead to those types of candidates.
    Great blog!