“Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You” vs. Making Government “Cool”

President Obama has tried to emulate President Kennedy by making government “cool” again. Has the promise succeeded?

More than half a century ago, President Kennedy rallied an army of young people to federal government service and then put them to work. Some went to the Peace Corps, a new agency. The Peace Corps initiative was popular and received more than 11,000 completed applications in the first few months after it was announced.

John F. Kennedy’s charisma, charm and energy succeeded in attracting many young people into the ranks of federal employees whose numbers grew by more than 85,000 during his time in office. In 1975, more than 20% of the federal workforce was under 30.

Part of the appeal was the famous line in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The line hit a chord with the idealism of the ’60’s generation.  Government was the employer of choice for many and working for the government was considered an honor and a higher calling for many than working in the private sector. The “best and brightest” could see themselves saving democracy during the cold war, putting a man on the moon working for NASA, or striving to be one of the lucky few selected to help the world’s most under privileged by working in the Peace Corps–while living in harsh conditions and working for a pittance but “making a difference” in the lives of others or helping America to win the space race.

President Obama, perhaps trying to emulate the Kennedy mystique, made the point in his campaign to “make government service cool,” particularly for the under-30 crowd that voted for him and certainly helped his improbable election as president. And, again emulating Kennedy, Obama wanted to expand the Peace Corps and Americorps as part of this effort. Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett said “Obama wants to set a tone of public service in the true sense of the word. That will be a catalyst for drawing people into government and also for rejuvenating people who are there” she told a meeting of black journalists according to the Washington Post in a 2008 article.

Well into his second term of office, has President Obama set the tone and succeeded in making working for the federal government “cool” again and attracted into government the army of young voters who propelled him into office? Perhaps not, although anyone who thought it would be easy underestimated the difficulty of changing a large bureaucratic institution. Moreover, the National Journal reports that some Democrats have been disappointed with President Obama’s “inattention to details of governing; his disengagement from the political process and from the public; his unwillingness to learn on the job; and his failure to surround himself with top-shelf advisers who are willing to challenge their boss as well as their own preconceived notions”—factors that could also impact federal employees and making government “cool.”

Many federal employees are dissatisfied. The federal employee job satisfaction and commitment level in 2013 dropped for the third year in a row to 57.8 on a scale of 100. This was the lowest overall Best Places to Work score since the rankings were first compiled in 2003.

The Wall Street Journal reports  the percentage of federal employees under 30 years old hit an 8 year low of  7 percent in 2013. In the private sector, the number is about 25 percent. With the lack of younger employees in these jobs, “the government risks falling behind in an increasingly digital world,” according to current and former federal officials cited in the article. The optimism expressed by presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, and her implied criticism of President Bush’s leadership, may be disappointing. In 2008 she stated: “I think a lot of people in government get a bad rap. And it’s not their fault, it’s the leadership at the top. That’s who sets the tone, that’s who charts the course, that’s who develops the job descriptions. So I think that will change under [Obama’s] leadership.”

Paul Light, a professor of public policy at New York University, told the Journal, the federal government is “an employer of last resort” and that “The federal government used to be an employer of choice.” Over the last four years, the reputation of the federal government as an employer has been declining. The reputation of the government as a bureaucracy isn’t “cool” and does not appeal to many highly qualified young graduates. Working for Apple or Google is much more attractive to those who say they want “to make a difference.” While federal salaries for the highly coveted best and brightest employees may be less than at high tech companies, that is probably not the biggest reason for the lack of interest.

Some of the baby boomers who may have been inspired by Kennedy, or at least by his reputation, are still working for the government. About 45% of the federal workforce was greater than 50 years old in 2013. By September 2016, nearly a quarter of all federal employees will be eligible to retire. The retirement tsunami that has been predicted may be underway or at least in its early stages but many of those eligible to retire are still working.

Some of the reasons for the lack of “cool” in government employment may be due to the public’s perception of government. A Pew research poll last year found that 19% of those polled trust the government in Washington to do what is right. 53% of Americans were found to believe that the federal government is a threat to their personal rights and freedoms. Public anger at the federal government was as high as at any point since the Pew Research Center began asking the question in 1997 with 30% of those surveyed indicating they were angry with government.

Many of the reasons for the low perception of government have been self-inflicted. The federal government has had a spate of bad publicity that would destroy the reputation of most organizations. Pictures of a GSA executive lounging in a bathtub with glasses of wine in an expensive suite plastered on national TV,  news stories about government agencies wasting millions of dollars on conferences followed by allegations of the IRS targeting out of favor political opponents of the president, the dramatic failed roll-out of the unpopular health care program,  the massive publicity about the lack of care for America’s veterans by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs and the killing of federal employees in our embassy in Libya without any satisfactory resolution or punishing those responsible have all had an impact on the reputation of government.

Unfortunately, getting through the government’s onerous and often inexplicable hiring process is not easy. As pointed out in the Journal article, the best and perhaps younger candidates are sometimes eliminated early in the process and the best candidates are often hired elsewhere long before federal agencies make a decision.

On the other hand, there are organizations such as the Partnership for Public Service which has a goal of “a dynamic and innovative federal government that effectively serves the American people” with plans to meet that goal. Perhaps this organization and others like it will find a way to turn around the reputation of government among the American population which, in and of itself, would inspire more young Americans to seek to participate in American government and make it work to make the country stronger.

What is your view? We hope readers will take the time to send in your comments at the end of the article. To see the results of this survey, see FedSmith.com Users Say Working for Government Isn’t ‘Cool’.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47