ANOTHER VIEW

In wake of terror, there's honor in public service

Stephen H. Holden

I wrote the first version of this piece before the attacks. The conventional wisdom before Sept. 11 held there was a crisis in federal employment. IT workers were poster children for the argument that the federal government was unable to compete with the private sector for employees.

Now, a changed economy and revised public attitudes give agencies the chance to present themselves to IT workers as special places to work.

Federal executives used to simply assume they could not compete on salary for new college graduates. As Joseph S. Nye Jr., dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, has pointed out, smart grads can earn $100,000 per year at a consulting firm or $35,000 as a GS-9 presidential management intern.

National polls taken as recently as a year ago showed half of parents would discourage their children from pursuing jobs in the public sector.

In the aftermath of the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks, public sentiment has changed. New polls indicate that public confidence in government is at a 35-year high. The crush of applicants for the newly proposed position of federal air marshal is a vivid example of how Americans are revisiting their thoughts on civic duty and responsibility.

Given all of this, the prospects for IT and management problems such as electronic government, national defense, intelligence or public health no longer need be imperiled by the lack of a quality IT work force. Will a wave of patriotism inspire private-sector IT workers to abandon their stock options and queue up to join the civil service ranks?

They may not come flocking to your doors, but federal managers must consider taking advantage of several converging forces:

  • Big challenges. Stress the psychic income of working on some of the most interesting and nettlesome challenges facing our country. Few private-sector employers offer the opportunity to work directly in a decision-making role on large-scale issues such as ensuring the efficiency and safety of the nation's air traffic system, or building the Next Generation Internet. Solving these challenges as a federal employee is a tangible way for an individual to contribute to the post-attack rebuilding and healing process.

  • Compensation equity. Feds must think more broadly about notions of compensation before presuming that government cannot compete. Stock options don't have the cachet they did 18 months ago. What federal workers lack in stock options they make up for in job security, innovative practices such as on-site day care and telecommuting, and a 401(k) plan with generous employer matching contributions'all after pay and benefits.

  • Best and brightest. Most important, beat down the notion that federal workers, IT or otherwise, are inferior. Good and capable people have made conscious decisions to join and stay in federal service for reasons that go beyond their annual salary. Federal managers need to understand such people's motivations and promote those benefits to prospective employees.

    Many of my federal colleagues bemoan the fact that the civil service has missed a generation of talented potential employees who were turned away or turned off by public service during the 1980s and '90s. After the attacks, the Office of Personnel Management gave many agencies the go-ahead to streamline hiring processes.

    This may be the time to capitalize on public support for government. Use it to attract potential employees eager to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

    Stephen H. Holden, a former federal employee, is assistant professor in the Information Systems Department of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. E-mail him at Holden@umbc.edu.
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