Highest price of shutdowns: Deterring people from government careers

Highest price of shutdowns: Deterring people from government careers
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In the aftermath of the government shutdown, most of the discussion has focused on the harm done to citizens and taxpayers. We need to acknowledge a less visible but more lasting outcome: repeated partisan shutdowns threaten the supply of the next generation of public servants by undercutting the attractiveness of government as a career.

The shutdown reminded Americans how essential a competent and functioning government is in our lives. The impact of the shutdown on our air safety agencies may have been the most dramatic. But there also were disruptions of such essential activities as food safety inspections and recalls, reviews of new pharmaceuticals, loans for homebuyers and housing quality inspections, clean-up of toxic sites, emergency federal aid to farmers to compensate mainly for a sharp drop in soybean prices, care of our national parks and rebuilding efforts after natural disasters.

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Nothing could be more reckless than to seek to blackmail opponents into agreeing to a policy by placing the entire federal governance structure at risk, including the very agencies that carry out critical functions of offering safe environments in which to work, travel, eat, live, raise children and seek care. The shutdown added to the already extraordinary management challenges faced by federal agencies. Now they have to deal with post-shutdown backlogs and the risk of more in coming weeks. And for those operating under continuing resolution, there is the added burden of not knowing the operational and program funding for a fiscal year that is well into its second quarter.

These consequences of shutdowns are bad enough in the short term. As dean of a public policy school, I fear that, in the long run, the greatest damage to our democracy may come from discouraging talented, idealistic young people from choosing public service as a career.

What Alexander Hamilton called “the vigor of government” and viewed as essential to liberty depends largely on a government cared for by well-trained public servants who are committed to the mission of the government and have the skills and expertise to apply to the challenges inherent in advancing that mission. Unfortunately, our public servants find themselves as bargaining chips in political brinkmanship more and more often. In the 35 days of the latest shutdown, our public servants were held hostage by the very government to which they committed their talent and loyalty.

The effects of shutdowns go beyond demoralizing present-day federal employees to deterring the next generation from succeeding them. The need to solve the federal government’s talent crisis is large and growing. Shutdowns reinforce the unfair and untrue impression that federal service is populated with incompetent, lazy staff and work that is administrative and bureaucratic. They deprive employees of the dignity that comes with going to work and doing their jobs. What could be more demoralizing than to be told you are “nonessential personnel”?

Today, government is in fierce competition with the private and nonprofit sectors, which are fighting for the same talented next-generation of workers. Young people have passion and purpose. They want to make a difference. But unlike my generation, which heeded President John F. Kennedy’s call to careers in the public sector as a place where you can apply that passion and realize that purpose, many young Americans are choosing other sectors.

The place where one can affect policy at the highest levels, by applying creativity, compassion and intellect, now has created and reinforced barriers of dysfunction, financial risk and disruption. What motivated, educated young person would want to work for an organization if they had to wonder from day to day whether they would be furloughed and go unpaid? How many applicants will seek jobs in an institution that tells “nonessential personnel” not to come in to work?

The growth of bipartisan support for approaches to ending the practice of partisan shutdowns is encouraging. Approaches include: mandating an automatic trigger for time-limited continuing funding authority, capping spending levels to that of the prior year; developing appropriations legislation that covers two years, with a mandatory first-year review and adjustment; establishing rolling, three-year appropriations with annual adjustment reviews; and creating a comprehensive appropriation vehicle containing payroll and compensation funding for all federal agencies.

But even if Congress eliminates the shutdown as a tool of partisan politics, enormous damage has been done. The imposition of hardship and uncertainty on those who work for the public good may make qualified, dedicated people think twice about government careers. Because government can be only as dedicated and competent as the citizens it employs, this may be the highest price of shutdowns.

Public policy schools such as the one I am privileged to lead help to strengthen our democracy through the successes of our alumni, the engagement of our faculty, and the drive of our students.  We are working to ensure that public administration remains a high and noble calling that attracts the best and brightest to public service. We in America’s public policy schools do not shirk from our responsibility to develop public servants. We ask that unnecessary obstacles not be placed in our way.

Angela Evans is dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas. She previously served as deputy director of the Congressional Research Service.