The Privatization of Public Service
Posted by Allison Fine on July 1, 2008
In researching the Social Citizens(beta) paper, I was struck by a potential problem in public life. We have been witness to an explosion in interest in volunteerism nonprofit careers has and In summary, interest in volunteerism has exploded over the past two decades while interest in government careers has waned. Elected officials and other community leaders regularly laud the importance of the nonprofit sector, is it time for nonprofit leaders to extol the virtue of government service?
The Social Citizens paper is focused on Millennials (ages 15-29) a super-sized generation in terms of their total number, their passion for causes and their use of social media. Their size and passion are mirrored by the increase in size and relevance of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. As I say in the paper, young people are marinating in causes as volunteers, nonprofit careerists and social entrepreneurs.
But, there has been a cost to this explosion in altruism. It can be summed up by one statistic: A study by the International City Manager’s Association in 2006 found that only 13% of professional local government managers today are under 40. In the early 1970s nearly 71% were 40 or younger. (A shout-out to Bethany Henderson for her fascinating paper on this topic.)
I told a friend of mine about this statistic the other day and she said, “Of course, who wants to work for government, it sucks!”
As volunteerism went into schools in the late 1980s, education about government and public policy came out. This has been coupled with the far right’s agenda of demonizing government service that has largely worked. The result: working for Kiva is cool but working for Clark County, NV government sucks.
“Service” today means working for causes and communities larger than oneself, which is laudable and terrific. However, the use of the term service is applied almost entirely to nonprofit activities to the exclusion of government or military service. Aside from the Peace Corps and Teach for America, two quasi-governmental efforts, public service today means supporting nonprofit work. Compare this to President Kennedy’s call for public service, which invited the best and brightest to come and work for the government.
Please don’t get me wrong; volunteerism is a wonderful, uniquely American approach to community problem solving, however this new definition of “service” raises two problems; one is scale the other is scope.
As much money and attention is given to voluntary efforts, they still generally pale in light of public funds for the environment, schools and community infrastructure. For instance, after-school programs that are intended supplement public school efforts, with a fraction of the time with students and money that school districts have.
Private voluntary efforts can pick and choose the issues and populations with which to work. Organizations like Volunteers of America choose to work in very distressed communities with people who have significant, sometimes overwhelming, problems. Most groups don’t – and that is their choice, they are private efforts and can choose where and with whom to work. Through public policy, government is supposed to serve all people and communities. (If you want a refresher of how important this concept was to the Founding Fathers, take a peek at the Federalist papers, you will be taken aback, I think, by their passion over this particular issue.) We know that it often doesn’t, but, this is what government is intended to do, and what idealist young people can press it to do better, to help those least able to help themselves by directing resources to large public problems.
I am not advocating a lifetime of work in the cramped cubicles of government offices. I am suggesting that we include government service as part of the sector hopping between the private and nonprofit sectors that has become the norm for so many people throughout their careers. What my friend Marty Kearns calls the need for greater “churn,” or turnover in public sector leadership positions. Not as an afterthought but as a fundamental part of a lifetime of service and social change that has become so important to us, particularly for young people.
Nor am I advocating for the growth of government services. I am not interesting in continuing the ping-pong conversation about big versus small government, which is as unproductive as talking about red versus blue states when most states are actually purple, meaning a combination of both. I am interested in a conversation about effective over ineffective government, which we won’t get to until more talented people are attracted to government service.
So, help me out. Does the distinction I am making between public and private service make sense to you? Am I overstating the crisis in government service? Should we care about this?
This entry was posted on July 1, 2008 at 2:44 am and is filed under Uncategorized. Tagged: International City Manager's Association, Millenials, Social Citizens. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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