Renewing the call to public service
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Renewing the call to public service

July 10, 2019 | Updated on July 1, 2021

In photo above: Speakers at the “Renewing the Call to Public Service” panel, from left to right: Moderator David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group; Penny Pritzker, founder and chairman of PSP Capital Partners and former secretary of the Department of Commerce; Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service; and Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California and former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Our country grapples with tough challenges, but none, I would argue, is more important than how well our government functions. To operate at its most effective, government needs to attract top people to serve at all levels.

In June, I had the opportunity to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival and participate in a panel session called “Renewing the Call to Public Service,” along with esteemed fellow panelists.

Every year, the festival brings together scholars, world leaders, entrepreneurs and others to share their thoughts and ideas on issues.

This year, event hosts welcomed go-getters such as David Brooks, op-ed columnist for The New York Times; Chris Christie, former New Jersey governor and senior legal and political commentator for ABC News; and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO.

During my session, a co-panelist, Penny Pritzker, said, “It’s extraordinary to be able to serve the American people” by working in government. Pritzker has served in both the public and private sectors—as secretary of the Department of Commerce in the Obama administration and founder and chairman of PSP Capital Partners, among other positions.

Our panel moderator, David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group, recalled that Americans “rushed to come into federal service” in the 1960s, following President John F. Kennedy’s famous, “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech.

Yet, the eagerness to serve in government has since ebbed, according to co-panelist Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system and former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Today, students are “interested in addressing global challenges,” yet less interested in “going into government service.”

The question is: Why? Why aren’t people considering government as a career, and how do we change that? I suggested the following:

Highlight the important work federal employees do.

Government provides individuals with an unparalleled opportunity to make a difference. And federal employees do make a difference—every single day.

The American people often don’t know these stories of accomplishment. Even people inside government aren’t always aware of the good work their peers are doing. More stories circulate about government dysfunction than about what government is doing well. It’s no wonder, then, that government has a negative reputation among America’s “most visible employers,” according to the 2019 Axios Harris Poll 100.

I talked about our Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, which highlights federal employees whose remarkable achievements have improved lives in America and around the globe. Publicizing the accomplishments of Arthur Allen, Victoria Brahm and other remarkable public servants, provides a better understanding of the power of government to do great things and, hopefully, leads more people to consider public service.

Improve leadership throughout government.

The biggest complaint federal employees have about their jobs is related to agency leadership, according to our Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® rankings, produced annually with Boston Consulting Group.

Federal employees need skilled and knowledgeable supervisors and permanent—not long-term acting—agency leaders. And they need leaders in the White House and Congress to keep government running. Shutdowns disrupt public services and cause immense harm to the country and federal employees, and they should not be used for political purposes.

Listen to the session.