T.S. Elliot called April “the cruelest month.” Even disregarding Tax Day, April was a cruel month for me this year. It was the month I choose to leave the federal government. Two weeks ago I officially decided that instead of converting to the civil service at the end of my PMF in the fall, I will be attending Rice University to complete my PhD in Political Science (hey, at least it’s related).
It is with great sadness that I leave the government. Although I have occasionally had Kafkaesque experiences, the time I have spent in the government has, in large part, been personally and professionally fulfilling. Not to mention my time with the excellent members of YGL. I’m extremely sad that I won’t be around to see my fellow Gen Y’ers will step up to the challenge of reinventing the government during the next administration.
The reinvention of government is not an option, but a necessity. However, it will not be accomplished solely by current feds. To succeed, it must be a collaborative effort by groups and individuals across the country. It will take former feds (like I soon will be), academics, grassroots activists, non-profits, state and local governments, and countless others to force the federal government to flatten its organization and breakdown barriers to progress. Right now some of the most innovative projects in the public sector are taking place at the state and local level. They are partnering with private enterprise and non-profits, exploiting existing opportunities as well as creating their own. They are combating issues like global warming and the housing crisis, occasionally hitting a home run, frequently striking out. But they are trying and innovating, while the federal government often acts like a pitcher on the disabled list.
As the 21st century progresses and Gen Y and Gen X begin to move into positions of influence, the government will not have the luxury of watching from the sidelines. If we fail to act, action won’t fail to be taken. We will be forced to act quickly and decisively, or watch the federal government’s influence diminish and its power for positive change shrink. A void will be left that other stakeholders - state and local governments, non-profits, private enterprise, even foreign countries - will fill, but only the federal government can act with the best interests of the whole nation in mind.
So what can we do to prepare for our inevitable roles as leaders in the federal government over the next few years of our careers? I have a few suggestions:
1. Focus on collaborative efforts
Collaboration will be even more important in the century to come than it is now. Everything is interconnected from environmental issues and urban planning, to homeland security and agriculture. The government will need outside actors (such as academics as I hope to be) to accomplish its goals, not just as regulated entities, but as partners and allies.
2. Be prepared and empowered to act
One of the major factors promoting intractability in the federal government is the constant quest for ‘more data’ or ‘more information.’ While the accurate information is priceless to a decision maker, demanding ‘further study’ is often simply an excuse for delay and inaction. Inaction is safer; the status quo is always comfortable. But neither accomplishes our primary goal of better serving the public. We need to become significantly more comfortable with risk and dismiss the “manufactured uncertainty” that so often plagues our policy debates. “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”
3. Get out more
Compared to previous generations, ours is much more comfortable with change and movement. Take this with a grain of salt if you must from someone leaving the federal government, but we must bring that mindset to reinventing government. The old model of federal employment where people spent 30-40 years at the same agency is no longer viable. Federal employees need rotational opportunities, exchange programs, sometimes even new jobs. To properly collaborate with and even understand our clients, we will need to move in and out of government, to the non-profit, private, and even contracting sectors, to learn the skills we will need to serve the public.
What is needed to reinvent the government is not so much new policies and procedures as it is a new mindset, a new outlook. Many might argue that some of the things I’ve suggested are already being done. Multiple agencies have private sector advisory councils; rotations are available to certain employees, etc. But it’s the difference between embracing change and being forced into it. It’s the difference between being reactive and proactive. A reactive government is no longer viable. We need a proactive, responsive government. To get that, we need an adaptable, knowledgeable workforce that has seen and done more than sit inside a federal building. So, while soon I will no longer be a public servant in fact, I’ll still be one in spirit. Hope to see some of y’all out in the world.