Top Transition Official Explains How to Make Government 'Cool' Again

Barack Obama says he wants to "make government cool again."

That’s a pretty cool thought, but what does it mean in real life?

Valerie Jarrett might know. She’s co-chairman of the president-elect’s transition team and spoke to the Trotter Group, an organization of columnists meeting in Washington this week.

I asked her what making government service cool really means. This is what she had to say:

More than a paycheck

“We’ll start …with the desire for public service and you take a government job not because it’s a paycheck but because you think that by working for the government you’re actually going to be able to make our country better. And so going into it, not focusing on the paycheck but what you do to receive the paycheck. I think is part what makes it cool.”

New ideas

“I think we’re open to innovative ideas for new ways of government doing business and we can get a lot of those ideas and we can get a lot of those ideas from people who have been out in the community trying to work with the federal government. …

“There are huge opportunities to change the federal government to make it a government that actually serves the people…”

Setting a new tone

“When I went to work for city government in Chicago people said to me why are you going to go work for city government? …Distain was in their voice. I said because I really love Chicago and I want to make it better.

“Tone starts at the top. I think because President-elect Obama cares deeply about transforming our government and making it serve the people so that we do actually improve the lives of everyday Americans, those who do need government most, that we provide the kind of safeguards and checks and balances that we’ve been missing over the last eight years, that got us into the economic crisis we’re in today.

“I think that because of that tone that he has of public service in the true sense of the word, public servant in the true sense of the word, that will be a catalyst for drawing people into government and also for rejuvenating people who are there.”

Bad rap

“I think a lot of people in government get a bad rap. And it’s not their fault, it’s the leadership at the top. That’s who sets the tone, that’s who charts the course, that’s who develops the job descriptions. So I think that will change under his leadership.”

Your turn.

Tell us what you think. Is it “cool” to work for the federal government? If so, what makes it that way? If not, what can be done to make it cool? What does cool mean? How can Obama, the incoming boss-in-chief, set a different tone for government service? What can the head of your agency do?

By Eric Pianin  |  November 10, 2008; 2:05 PM ET
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Federal employees should be able to purchase domestic partner benefits like our colleagues at most major corporations and law firms in the U.S.

Posted by: amypelican | November 10, 2008 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Working for the government CAN be "cool" again! I'm old enough to remember President Kennedy doing just that. Working for the government can be the perfect case of "doing well by doing good" - well, doing "reasonably well" anyway. I remember President Nixon mentioning something about protecting workers during a speech and was able to start a regulation to protect the hearing of truck drivers from "in-cab noise." I also worked for a government voluntary fuel economy program in the '70s that was very "cool."

We need our leadership to tell us the government can indeed help our country, not be the enemy - let's hope President Obama can lead the way!

Posted by: Hank9 | November 10, 2008 3:15 PM | Report abuse

I hate to say it, but I've heard the same line from the last 4 administrations. The problem always starts when the then current administration confuses public service with helping the reelection odds. Public service will never be "cool" its about hunkering down, keeping the long term objective in minds and not annoying the new schedule Cs that will show up. I realize that this sounds cynical, but read the comment about leadership. Someone promising to to save me from the slings and arrows of the un-named critics, because obviously I as a mere federal employee need the help of this administration. I'd rather be called incompetent by people who don't know anything than by those that know better.

Posted by: crete | November 10, 2008 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Government can be cool if government employees are allowed to use the tools that the Obama campaign used - Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, etc... Many agencies can't use these web 2.0 tools due to outdated restrictions. I blogged about it at:

Posted by: joeflood | November 10, 2008 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Make the hiring process work like most other hiring processes (get back to applicants in under 6 months), realize that incompetent managers with seniority leading the young and qualified is a good way to lose the young qualified, and only let people trade military service for government service if it is applicable.

Posted by: a_allen | November 10, 2008 3:44 PM | Report abuse

A start would be to stop buying the out of date Reagan view that government "is the problem" and respond to those that tout such views by pointing out that good solutions to a problem result when all are involved in the solution resolution. In other words all of us will be better off if government is seen as a part of the solution rather than seen as "the problem."

Posted by: LeaveMeAlone2 | November 10, 2008 4:22 PM | Report abuse

I also agree a change in the hiring process needs doing.

I lost not one, but THREE jobs to Peace Corps noncompetitive eligibility. One at the Natural History Museum (Smithsonian jobs are federal), and two at the USGS. Despite the fact I'd volunteered for 4+ years at the Smithsonian (in the research wings, not as a docent, and that included clocking field time in Central America when I had to arrange leave from paying jobs) and nearly 2 years in the labs of the USGS.

I focused my volunteer time in the actual field and facilities where I thought I could "do well by doing good". I was completely prepared to take the far-less-than-private-sector salaries in exchange for the benefits I thought I could do with active research. Perhaps it wasn't the Peace Corps, but I was still volunteering in Federal Service.

Each time I applied for a job - for which I was actually the preferred candidate - a recent Peace Corps volunteer who barely met the minimum requirements applied for the job. So it had to be offered to them first, and of course they took it.

Frustratingly, in two positions, the person left within a year deciding they didn't like the job after all! (The managers contacted me and asked if I was still interested in the positions.)

I moved on to other, private sector and non-profit pastures, but it's always bothered me that I had to. Because I was more qualified than each Peace Corps veteran candidate by a mile, and had a realistic view of the job requirements and career track. It wouldn't necessarily have been lucrative, but it would have been satisfying to me on many other levels, one large level of which was performing public good.

While I think it's great people go into the Peace Corps and do the work that they do, there should be some actual discretion allowed to the hiring manager. If the candidate is truly only minimally qualified and there is a significantly more knowledgeable, qualified candidate available, it does the *agency* no good to hire someone who may or may not be committed to the work involved.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | November 10, 2008 4:29 PM | Report abuse

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