With partisan bickering, government shutdowns (threatened and actual) and approval ratings at all-time lows, the headlines coming from Capitol Hill in recent years are a little lacking in the feel-good department. But are the bad vibes at the federal level encouraging more interest at the lower levels – or is it bad advertising all around for the public sector?
So far, the effect hasn’t seemed to dampen interest in the public workforce and, for some, the bad PR at the federal level has actually made people prouder of their local governments.
“It’s kind of even more inspiring,” says Ben Stango, a member of the civic organization Young Involved Philadelphia. “It was like — we get stuff done on the local level and they’re not on the national level.”
Stango has worked in the mayor’s office of community services and now works at the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. But he says he wants to return to public service and the repeated stalemates at the federal level have not dissuaded him.
“For us, what [the shutdown] did was to recapture the focus on the local work that’s really tangible and that really matters in a way that the national stuff only rarely touches,” Stango says of YIP’s response.
Sarah Cherenack, a public policy graduate student at the George Washington University, said the climate at the federal level hasn’t discouraged her from her goal of working in public service. But when her current workplace, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, closed during the 16-day shutdown last month, it did plant a seed.
“I think the insecurity factor has opened me up more to the idea of working as a contractor,” she said. But government is still her first choice. “I’m from New Jersey so I definitely have a lot of pride in my home state. So the idea of going back and working at the state level is interesting to me.”
Fellow student Juan Rodriguez said he thinks the shutdown only made the local level of government more appealing, noting that partisan politics “have destroyed the ability to reach across party lines to achieve results for the general public.”
Still, the unflattering view of national politicians – Congress’ approval rating hit an all-time low of 12 percent following the shutdown – has some worried that talented prospects will start looking elsewhere. The membership association Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration has sounded alarm bells, saying the “reputation of public service is at stake for the next generation of public servants. Jim Nussle, former Office of Management and Budget Director, recently told the advocacy group Campaign to Fix the Debt: “We may have already lost a generation of public servants who were watching over the past three years and saying, ‘Forget it.’”
But the early returns appear to be less dire. Certainly, says Bill Adams, professor of Public Policy and Public Administration at GW’s Trachtenberg School, another election cycle of stalemates and uncertainty could begin taking its toll. In fact, the Trachtenberg School through its GW Battleground Poll, is expected this week to release the results of a survey conducted post-shutdown on the perception of working for the federal government.
Corey Hurwitz, CEO of Careers in Government, notes that the private sector hasn’t necessarily been a more attractive alternative as the economy as a whole has struggled to recover from the recession. After all, layoffs and hiring freezes have not been limited to governments.
Additionally, the job security and benefits that the public sector offers, particularly in providing stable retirement benefits to long-term workers, are also not to be discounted. But Adams says perhaps the strongest reason is that it takes a certain kind of person to be attracted to public service in the first place. Many students who are drawn to public policy are motivated by altruism.
“They’re looking for a job where they can help make the world a better place … and their motivation is really inspiring,” Adams says. “I don’t know that they are so easily deterred by that recognition that there will be challenges along the way.”