Working to find actionable solutions to the nation's key challenges.

Matching Needs and Skills Through Public Service

By Matthew Weil

Monday, October 22, 2018

Government works better when essential needs are filled by the most competent employees. Yet federal agencies—hamstrung by limited budgets and strict pay scales—struggle to fill mission-critical vacancies with those individuals who are best situated to provide the highest quality work.

The good news is that Americans have always been interested in civic participation. The earliest commentators on the American experiment in the 19th century noted how engaged the public was on issues of national importance and the tendency to join civic associations to promote the public good. The bad news is that Americans today view government as one of the least effective ways to work for the common good, even as the government plays such a vital role in American life.

Key vacancies exist across government, but they tend to be most severe where individuals can earn much higher compensation in private employment as opposed to working directly for the American people. Nowhere is this easier to see than in government’s efforts to keep up with the rapidly innovating technical professions, particularly cybersecurity.

It can be hard to recruit skilled individuals in this space for permanent employment. That is why today’s news from the White House that the administration is exploring ways to onboard competent technical employees from some of the nation’s largest and most recognizable companies for temporary stints in public service is such a positive development.  

All Americans would benefit from an influx of short-term public service appointments to ensure the most informed and trained workforce. 

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform identified this mismatch of government needs and available employee skills and experience in 2014. Our recommendation at the time is remarkably similar to what the administration is doing today: More private-sector companies should make service-sabbatical opportunities available to their employees so they can use their business skills and expertise to help meet public needs in their own communities, elsewhere in the United States, or in other nations around the world.

Our thinking then was that some professions, including college professors and lawyers, are well-suited to temporary stints in public service. However, those opportunities have not traditionally existed for employees in private companies, and that these individuals could and should play a key role in setting government policy and practice.

Service sabbaticals would provide an infusion of new experience, knowledge, and business practices into government and community service while providing the volunteers with the satisfaction of serving their country. When the employees return from their sabbaticals, the businesses also benefit from having employees with new skills and a wider set of experiences and perspectives.

IBM, for example, offers a service sabbatical to thousands of its employees. These highly educated public servants then use their skills traveling to hotspots around the world while harnessing their technology expertise to solve problems. IBM management has embraced this program because they believe it is the right thing to do. But it also has been a great retention strategy for IBM’s business, allowing employees who otherwise may have left permanently to remain on staff while also giving back.

Federal government agencies are also in need of private sector talent and expertise, and some agencies, such as FEMA, have the ability to accept the services of individuals from the private sector who are interested in using their skills to advance the public good.  Engaging the private sector in solving government challenges and improving service delivery to the public has been done successfully at the state and local levels; more should be done to promote and expand these opportunities across all levels of government.

We strongly believe that other private companies should consider service sabbaticals. These temporary volunteer stints will improve our country’s ability to meet public needs while aligning with business interests in retaining talent. Companies can also give preferences in hiring, as they do for military veterans today, to those who perform a year or more of national service and have learned important skills such as leadership, collaborative problem-solving, grit and persistence, and public speaking. (Governing in a Polarized America, Page 83)

Government employees work hard every day to meet agency goals. But in the constantly evolving area of tech and cybersecurity policy, all Americans would benefit from an influx of short-term public service appointments to ensure the most informed and trained workforce. We can all be encouraged by the administration’s acknowledgement of public service as a potential solution to creating a more efficient federal government that better serves all Americans.

KEYWORDS: COMMISSION ON POLITICAL REFORM