Opportunity is calling: Professor Eileen Harrington looks back on a career in public service
To solve our biggest challenges both today and in the future, it is imperative that federal agencies recruit and retain more young people to fill critical talent gaps across government. As part of our ongoing efforts to inspire the next generation to consider a career in public service, the Partnership conducted a series of interviews with professors who have worked in the federal government.
Eileen Harrington, former executive director of the Federal Trade Commission and a 2004 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals® award winner, spoke with us about how her time as a public servant impacts her current work as an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Why were you interested in a public service career?
Harrington: I grew up in a household where the role of government in helping my relatives and family pull out of the Great Depression was referenced constantly. My parents also spent part of their careers in public service jobs, so public service was esteemed and admired in my family. I have always believed that government can make a difference, and my interest was in being part of that work of serving the public and the greater common good.
What was your biggest accomplishment working in the federal government?
Harrington: My biggest accomplishment was leading a long-term effort to create a very good culture of engagement at the Federal Trade Commission. This engaged workforce is one where people feel seen and heard and respected for the expertise that they’ve developed.
When I became a manager at the FTC, there was no central phone number for the agency. Through bottom-up strategic planning, my team created the Consumer Response Center, which today is responsible for managing the largest database of consumer complaints in the world. Out of that bottom-up planning came a whole bunch of other ideas, like the Do Not Call rule. That idea came from the staff. That’s an example of what an engaged workforce can create.
Why do you think it is important for students and recent graduates to go into public service?
Harrington: First, they’ll have unbelievable opportunities to develop skills and substantive expertise. In most federal agencies, there are really good programs to bring new and junior employees along quickly. Secondly, a public service career has its own value. It is deeply satisfying. It feels really good to go to work every day to serve the common good. Finally, public service gives younger people a much broader perspective on everything. When you go to work for the United States government, your perspective is your own job, but also the broad perspective of the agency that you’re working for and how that fits into the life of the country.
What one word best describes your experience working in public service and why?
Harrington: Gratitude. I had almost 28 years of opportunities to do things that I never imagined I would do. My office at the FTC looked right up at the United States Capitol and I could not believe that I, a kid from Wisconsin, was there in Washington, D.C., having so many opportunities to do work that was stimulating and meaningful.
Sarah Heppen is a former intern on the Partnership’s Federal Workforce team.