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Good Policies Need Good People

PH2009032502069.jpgI can't remember who made this point to me. Maybe it was Tyler Cowen. But we were talking about the Swedish health care system. "The reason we can't have that health care system," said my forgotten interlocutor, "is that we don't have Swedish bureaucrats. In Sweden, going into the government is considered a good job for talented graduates interested in social justice In America, it's not."

I always found that convincing. And I was reminded of it reading Peter Orszag's post celebrating OMB being ranked the third best agency to work for in the federal government. Surveys like this one, he writes, are "not only important for good management; it's also critical for the future of government. As the baby boom retires, the federal government will have to fill several hundred thousand positions in the next four years. To draw the best and the brightest people into federal service, we should follow the lead of the highest-ranking agencies to make careers in government service more rewarding, enriching, and attractive to talented people."

My sense is that it's pretty cool to work for Peter Orszag and Cass Sunstein and Zeke Emmanuel right now. OMB is probably getting some good applicants. But further out, it gets harder. Smart college graduates interested in social justice go work for non-profits that push for better welfare benefits. They don't go work for the agencies that administer welfare benefits.

(Photo credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

By Ezra Klein  |  May 21, 2009; 11:04 AM ET
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I guess we can all agree (can't we?) that having inspiring figures at the head of the executive branch agencies is the starting place for building effective and dedicated government. But part of the problem is getting folks educated into knowing good policy and adminstration from bad. On this, contemporary Political Science fails the test, and has for decades. (I was a subject-major and victim in this atrocity in action, those many years ago).

Whereas, International Relations, or Constitutional Law or Comparative Government had some intectual zing, Public Administration was deadly dull as a subject, and Public Policy wasn't even a topic/course - you had to go to the History Dept to find out the FDR's guys did some really interesting things. Now, I'm sure that the JFK School of Government at Harvard does good work in prepping people to get excited about the challenges and rewards of government service, it takes hundred of thousands of people to staff the executive agencies, and most universities are totally out of tune on meeting this need.

One thing that would make a huge difference: a major-major internship program for undergraduates and masters candidates in the various agencies. Involvement and seeing first hand the challenges of making a contribution would provide a significant feed of new ideas and youthful drive. Why isn't this being done?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 21, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that this idea is self-reinforcing as well. Either in the direction of good applicants or bad.

But there are a few things that I think make a difference. One, I worked on the Obama Campaign, and exactly those type of people worked on the campaign. These folks are being hired now, but like I said this trend may be self-reinforcing in the long-term.

Second, although I am not looking for work, I check for jobs on a weekly basis to provide insight to friends and family. For probably 70% to 80% of entry level jobs government wages and benefits are substantially higher than similar work in the private sector. This was true in 2006 and 2007 even while employment was increasing.

Although the top 10%, top 1%, and especially the top .1% are grossly higher in the private sector, the vast majority of jobs provide better pay in the public sector.

Over the course of the last 10 years, these spectacular top wages kept workers in the private sector as lower wages with the hope of achieving the massive wage pinnacle, especially in the financial sector. As people, namely the type of people discussed in your post, look for work over the next few years, this same type of lower wage decision making seems unlikely.

The last point is that culture and incentives matter. As I said I worked on the Obama Campaign. Culture was tough to instill, but through leadership and contagious attitude (which sounds a little soft and abstract)a unique attractive culture is possible to create. Just like Google in the private sector. But also, incentives, people like to improve and compete and even if social justice and not gaudy pay is the end goal, interim individual and team incentives matter. And I think they do in government as well.

Posted by: econowonk | May 21, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Good points both. I'd add to Jim's comments: The bureaucrat is a gray and loathed figure. He's a governmental accountant. There's a lot of competition to be a cabinet secretary, but in the bureaucracy, there's neither monetary reward nor fame. You attract people looking for stability rather than entrepreneurial opportunity.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | May 21, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I'm actually doing what Jim alludes to in his last paragraph. I'm a master's candidate in international science and technology policy at George Washington doing a year-long internship at the Department of the Interior. I know such policy degrees haven't been options for that long, but I find it very interesting and I'm glad this option was available. This chance go get a taste of life in the public sector has also been very nice, and I think I'd like to stay in government when I finish. The internship certainly is doing its job because I was more oriented in the nonprofit direction before.

Posted by: AndrewDClark | May 21, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Alyssa's post bears on Jim's point too.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | May 21, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

In the UK, the permanent Civil Service has its fast-track for people who want to work in government, and it competes with the big City firms. You can easily invoke "Yes, Minister", but there's something to be said for its continued high status.

JimPortlandOR: internships are fine, but as the late Steve Gilliard pointed out, they tend to benefit those who don't need to work during the summer vacation, or whose families can sort out accommodation and basic expenses. Cover a chunk of the costs, provide some kind of dorm facility, perhaps get local universities involved with a teaching component.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | May 21, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

I'd also point out that getting a job as a government bureaucrat is a b****. Seriously. Getting a Schedule C job is near-impossible if you don't know somebody; getting a job through USAJobs is near-impossible if you aren't a current government employee or a veteran.

I've tried both routes. I've also gone the non-profit route and the consultant-for-non-profits route. The private sector ones are just far and away easier.

On some level, I'm quite sure there's a good reason for the job process as it is. But on another, it's so byzantine and confusing that someone who didn't spend his 18th-22nd years honing the right skills and connections to push straight into a bureaucratic job (because he was, you know, 18-22 and didn't have a clue what he wanted to do with himself) is ill-equipped to make it happen, no matter how badly he wants to or how well-equipped he is to actually do the job. And that's a serious problem for quality.

Posted by: OpieCurious | May 21, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Of course Tyler Cowen is a government employee

Posted by: endaround | May 21, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

Seeing more parts of agencies being taken over by political appointees is offputting to those who might actually like to do their job.

It used to be that only a couple of jobs at the top were political appointees, but this has escalated. Bush made a fine art out of creating new job titles so that he could bypass the existing undersecretaries and the like.

Civil service could use a good reform, its overdue, the last one was nearly a century ago.

Posted by: robertfeinman | May 21, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

Living language, old words and old ways. Some aspects of culture cannot be renamed and claimed. Looking for a definition of, "bamboozle", I found it to be aan 18th century word for conning, trickery foolishness, etc. -

Then combining another oldie but goodie I found, "shyster". "Person without professional honor, esp. tricky lawyer. -Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964.

The result is: Bamboozling shysters. Whaddoyaknow.

Posted by: hillhopper | May 21, 2009 7:56 PM | Report abuse

Government employment practices and the culture of particular administrations are a very small piece of this. Americans and Swedes are on opposite ends of the trust-your-government spectrum. Americans are skeptical of their government (and they should be). Swedes regard their government as another parent-- beneficent, knowing and truly concerned with the welfare of the citizen and the country-- and this continues regardless of which Swedish party is in power. Swedes should be more skeptical. But it makes sense that the Swedes can feel safer. There are various social ways in which individual success is discouraged. Also, their society is smaller and more homogeneous. Put that together and you find that there are fewer people and a very large percentage of those people's interests are aligned. It would be nice if some of the government changes suggested above would be implemented. But a bigger reason we don't have Swedish bureaucrats, is that we don't have Swedish society.

Posted by: JoannaShmoanna | May 22, 2009 2:08 AM | Report abuse

pseudonymousinnc: A lot of the internships, including mine, are paid. I'm paid along the normal government pay scale that is consistent with my experience and qualifications at the time I was hired. However, I don't get health benefits because of the temporary status.

Posted by: AndrewDClark | May 22, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

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