JOBS: Don’t Forget the Public Sector

Glickman is a former congressman and Secretary of Agriculture. He is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and Vice President of the Aspen Institute.

Officials have disinvested in and disparaged the people who make our government (and our lives) function, discouraging young people from one day replacing its aging workforce

Government, like any other institution, is a human enterprise. Good government, therefore, is completely dependent upon having good people. Federal and state governments are made up of hundreds of thousands of individuals who have to make decisions and take action, all in the name of service to their community and nation. In order to have a government that serves us well, we need to have the best and brightest people consider careers with the government. Unfortunately, young Americans are turning away from public service. As the public sector workforce ages, we will confront a serious problem of finding good people to fill those jobs.
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As a congressman, I spent a lot of time working with federal employees. As Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, I worked with some of the most talented people in the intelligence community. But I spent a lot more time trying to help my constituents get what they needed than hanging around with spies. More of my time was spent dealing with Social Security and Medicare officials who helped make sure that my constituents received the benefits that they earned, or working with the Veteran’s Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services to get help for disabled Kansans or benefits for military retirees. Their stories and work aren’t going to be the basis for the next espionage action movie, but their talent and determination were no less important to Americans.

Whether you’re a spy or a Medicare claims processor, you are still a public servant. As an American citizen, we ought to want the best talent for all of our public sector positions, because when we have the best talent, we get the best results for our community and nation.

As secretary of one of the largest federal agencies in government, USDA, I worked with nearly 100,000 federal employees who bravely fought forest fires, helped keep our food safe and much more. Overall, the USDA public servants were some of the most dedicated workers in the world, focused on carrying out our congressional mandates to help people and make the world better for all Americans.

Here is the problem: The federal workforce is among the oldest segments of the labor market, and it is not being replenished with talented young people to keep the level of service high.

Some young Americans are turning away from service out of a belief that government work doesn’t make a difference in people’s lives. They are wrong about that, but they wouldn’t know it because of how easily and often politicians criticize federal workers and blame them for things beyond their control. After all, Congress passes the laws and creates the programs. Federal employees simply administer them.

Many more turn away from public service because of the intentional disinvestment in public service. Everyone understands that government work is going to pay less than the private sector, but between sequestration, periodic threats of government shutdowns and pay and hiring freezes, we aren’t giving federal government a chance to compete for the best and brightest talent.

The disinvestment in federal workers needs to stop. Politicians need to express more respect for public service and public servants than they currently do. It is easy to criticize the federal workforce. But without the best possible employees working in the public sector, the only ones who will suffer are the American people.

Glickman is a former congressman and Secretary of Agriculture. He is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and Vice President of the Aspen Institute.

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