Academy won’t fix shortage of government workers

Editorial

The big brains were meeting at Princeton earlier this month, mulling strategies for getting more of America’s best and brightest to choose government service as a career.

We didn’t attend, so we can’t be sure our thoughts on the subject weren’t touched on, but one solution seems obvious enough to us: remove the stigma often attached to government service by changing the prevailing culture inside government from inertia to innovation.

That’s easier said than done, we know, as the frustrated results of so many previous reform efforts (from the Hoover Commission to the Packard Commission to the Grace Commission to Bill Clinton’s National Performance Review) attest. But until we find a way to make federal agencies more dynamic, more efficient, more action — and results — oriented (and, yes, less bureaucratic), most college graduates are going to look elsewhere for professional excitement and opportunities.

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, was quoted in the Washington Post saying that “public service is not on the radar screen of most students.” Added the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs: “The kids who want to be change agents and make the biggest impact do not see the federal government as the place to do that.”

At present, much of the response revolves around creating financial incentives that will draw young people into government service — by funding special fellowships, for instance, or proposing student debt forgiveness for those who take public sector jobs. A second approach involves creating elite academic programs that develop future leaders and will add an element of prestige to the idea of government.

An unwelcome and unnecessary manifestation of the latter approach is a proposal floating around Congress to establish a U.S. Public Service Academy, modeled after the nation’s military academies, which would turn out the government service elite of tomorrow.

Taxpayers would pay the way if graduates work at least five years for government at the local, state or federal level.

Hillary Clinton and a number of politicians have signed on to the idea, understanding that somebody with some measure of competence will be needed to administer a government takeover of health care and their other statist schemes. But we believe an academy would be wasteful, redundant and bound to result in failure, if its elite graduates are driven to madness or frustration while serving in today’s immovable and hidebound bureaucracies.

Federal agencies undoubtedly will face challenges as the mass retirement of baby boomers sweeps many top administrators from government jobs, leading to a brain drain and experience gap. And that raises the specter — not altogether displeasing to hard-core libertarians, who see too much government efficiency as a threat to their liberties — of an even more ill-managed state.

But an academy would be redundant, judging from the nearly 30 universities represented at the Princeton meeting, each of which apparently is involved in efforts to direct students toward public service.

Many readers undoubtedly have heard of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, perhaps the most famous training ground for the governing elite. But there are others, including Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson Center. The University of Maryland, Seton Hall, Tufts, Louisiana State and Stanford are considering similar programs, according to The Washington Post. Then there’s Princeton’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service initiative, the Samuel J. Heyman fellowship program at the Harvard Law School and the Robert B. Fisk Jr. fellowship at the University of Michigan Law School.

The National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration has downplayed the need for a “brick and mortar” academy, arguing instead for the creation of a “virtual academy” that links existing programs together. And that makes better sense to us.

These and other initiatives might not elevate government work to the august status a new National Public Service Academy might — and it wouldn’t mean some lucky member of Congress would get a new academy located in the home state or district, a pork-barrel possibility that undoubtedly enhances the concept’s appeal on Capitol Hill.

But there’s absolutely no reason why government’s ranks couldn’t be filled with the best and the brightest from existing universities and programs — if academy backers spent as much time trying to fix what’s broken inside the federal government as they do trying to rehabilitate its deservedly tarnished image.