Four steps for governments struggling to recruit and retain young civil servants
When 28-year-old Amy James* worked for the US government, she’d marvel at how the man sitting across from her — a senior economist — could avoid work at all costs. He would play online chess for hours. He’d trap unsuspecting colleagues into listening to long tirades about the state of government. Once a week, he’d even clip his fingernails at his desk.
The economist had a GS15 pay grade: he earned in the ballpark of $105,123 to $136,659 annually. James watched upper management shuffle him from portfolio to portfolio — bureau committees to budget task forces — but never get fired, in spite of his notorious laziness. Meanwhile, James’ boss was pushing her to go back to school: without a Master’s degree, he said, she would never be promoted from the office assistant job she’d held for two and a half years.
These are just a couple of the reasons James, who earned a third of the economist’s salary, became disillusioned by government work. Well-spoken, thoughtful and tech-savvy, James — who, three years later, is a software engineer in the private sector — seems like the ideal government recruit. But she was driven out by a system that prizes process over results, degrees over experience and age over youth.
the US, 7% of federal government employees are under the age of 30. To compare, 10% of Canada’s civil service is younger than 30. In Australia, it’s 11%; the UK, 13%; and New Zealand, 14%.
But slow-moving hiring, outdated management tactics and bad PR still hold most governments back from attracting top talent. Here’s a wider look at the problem, and four tips to help civil services around the world recruit and retain young workers.
The main issue for us in recruiting young people is their perception of the civil service — that we’re bureaucratic and old-fashioned
In fact, this presidency is having the opposite effect, said Kettl: “There’s clearly a Trump effect: it is clear that many younger people are not interested in exploring government careers because of him.” Polls show that just 33% of Americans aged 15 to 34 approve of President Trump, with 60% saying he is “mentally unfit” for the office.
James, the civil servant-turned-software-engineer, said she was driven out of public service by archaic and inefficient processes. Take performance reviews as an example: in her department, office culture dictated that you give colleagues a five out of five on every question. If someone received a four-and-a-half, James said, it signalled that the person was doing something catastrophically wrong.
The trumped-up performance review system allowed older employees to get away with bad behaviour and laziness, James said.
It’s backward management and recruitment processes like these that keep young people from government work. Hiring, for example, is frustratingly inflexible, said Kettl: “So much of the human capital system is based on ‘Have I checked that box?’ ‘Have I complied with procedures?’”