From college junior to the National Security Council: A career shaped by 9/11
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From college junior to the National Security Council: A career shaped by 9/11

September 9, 2021

9/11 found me as a college junior studying international relations abroad with no clear sense of purpose. It found one friend attending graduate school at Harvard, another on the second day of foreign service officer training at the State Department and another settling into an entry-level role in finance.

Before 9/11, we and thousands like us were young people with vague and acceptable career paths, broadly content to pursue jobs that lacked strong purpose. 9/11 changed all that. It placed us at front of a stark crossroads and drew us toward the demanding path of public service. We decided to run down this path, fueled by adrenaline and purpose.

Answering the call to serve

Reflections on the aftermath of that fateful September morning sometimes reference a so-called 9/11 effect, the idea that military enlistment rates climbed steeply in the year following the attacks. 

These sentiments don’t quite capture the experience of my peers out of uniform, and in truth, enlistments increased only modestly for a short time, though those who signed up knew they were joining a forever changed and frequently deployed military.

In addition, a whole generation of professionals turned casual interests in foreign affairs into laser-focused civilian careers in national security—as diplomats, intelligence analysts, Department of Defense civilians, terrorist finance experts and much more. I, like many others, honed my studies on the Middle East, terrorism and proliferation; Arabic and Middle East studies became two of the fastest growing academic fields in the country.

New government missions, agencies and overseas requirements drove the hiring of early career government civilians in scores, or bringing in contractors to support urgent needs by the hundreds. In the first decade of the 2000s, joining government service in foreign policy was often heady, energized and purpose-driven—feelings that foreign policy practitioners had missed and longed for since the end of the Cold War.

Reciting the oath of office—protecting the Constitution against all enemies—was an emotional, even personal, call to action and public stewardship. On my first day at the FBI as a Presidential Management Fellow, all of us in orientation were asked why we had decided to become public servants. There was no other answer besides 9/11.

With this commitment came inspiring performance, self-sacrifice, dedication and patriotism from a new generation of public servants, often working in new career fields, conducting off-the-map missions or making unprecedented high-stakes decisions. These civilians—my friends and colleagues—deployed with the Marines, worked 12 hours shifts in operations centers, wrote wholly new doctrine and cajoled the Army to grudgingly accept it.

These years produced incredible national security talent that proved to be unflappable in a crisis and unswayed by conventional authority. They—we—were poster children for national security workforce recruitment, an embodiment of the chance to serve—and serve intensely—before you turned 30. Less than a decade after 9/11, I was working on the National Security Council staff among the most talented, dedicated colleagues I’ve ever encountered.

Unintended consequences remain today

As a field, however, we were too often the symptoms of many failures of government management, some of which persist today. Hundreds of young people were hired based on perceived urgency with no defined roles, career paths, or experienced mentors.

I left the FBI for the Defense Department after a year when it became clear that the bureau was still learning to develop and use intelligence analysts effectively. Many of the smart, dedicated civil servants out of graduate school who joined government service in waves after 9/11 arrived only a few short months after reciting their oaths in Kabul, Afghanistan to arrange elections or in Basra, Iraq to support Marine Corps operations, generally with minimal experience or guidance.

These examples were all part of a broader story of months of intense work, study and learning being lost in disconnected rotations and abrupt reorganizations. Emphasis on mission shortchanged investment in leadership, with the hardest charging offices in my Pentagon hallway often managed by toxic or overwhelmed supervisors.

A tendency to rely on the military for non-military tasks also hamstrung efforts to build the capacity of the federal workforce and develop new networks across government—the effects of which can still be felt today. And an optimistic, can-do, progress-is-possible attitude too often turned goals into fantasies and metrics into falsehoods, commonly understood and rarely acknowledged.

Learning from the past to shape the future

When 9/11 found me, I took a sharp turn toward public service to help our nation meet crises with preparedness and confidence—and I met a vast network of civilian and military colleagues who answered a similar call to serve the public good and protect our national security.

I remain deeply proud of the ethos that brought us together. At the same time, I recognize in those years the importance—and absence—of those issues the Partnership works hard for every day: sound leadership, robust talent management, a commitment to building strong teams that comes from the top, stewardship of public trust, and a strong culture of organizational learning and evaluation.

There could be no more rewarding place to spend my next chapter of public service.

Partnership Marketing Manager Parker Schaffel also reflected on the anniversary of 9/11 and how the aftermath inspired him to serve his country and federal employees.

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