Put yourself in a graduating student’s shoes. Beset by debt in many cases, it would be understandable to chase the dollar. To put aside other ambitions and focus on replenishing the bank balance. But such a scenario does not necessarily play out as frequently as you might think. Today’s best and brightest – like previous generations before them – often opt for another path, one that leads them away from the corporate world and instead towards a career in public service.
Virginia Hill, President of Young Government Leaders (YGL), says that the enduring power of government to attract strong applicants comes down to several factors. “First and foremost is mission,” she explains. “The public sector may not be able to compete with some of the salaries, innovations, or the fast pace at which some private companies might move, but millennials are attracted to government careers because of the mission. This is an area where we have the advantage hands down.”
Hill’s insights are rooted in the views and perspectives of the more than 7,500 young federal, state, and local government employees and contractors who form the membership of YGL. Headquartered in Washington, DC, and with regional chapters across the United States, YGL offers professional development activities, networking opportunities, social events, seminars, fellowships, and scholarships for its community of young government leaders.
Hill stressed that, alongside mission, the opportunity to make a difference continues to hold significant sway. “The power and responsibility that come with working for government is something that really attracts young people because they have the chance to be at the heart of the work getting done, the policy being developed, and the purchases being made – all the things that government has authority and control over,” she says. “And government offers young people an opportunity to grow. This is something that our YGL surveys consistently indicate as being very important.”
Although there is little agreement on a precise definition, the millennial generation are seen as those born after 1981. Like other generations before them, they have been subject to much analysis about what makes them tick. Hill, though, says that the divide between millennials and their predecessors is not as wide as one might suspect.
“I think we can acknowledge the realities of what the millennials want, but it’s hard to say whether or not they are that different from the young baby boomers of 20 years ago,” she says. “One key difference is their use of social media. It’s not a new concept to millennials – they have grown up with it. This has broken down a lot of barriers and has made millennials a more collaborative and sharing-focused generation.” She goes on to cite Twitter as a key example. “It enables you to directly contact someone you might not have had access to in the past. The same principle applies at work through tools like instant messenger, which can give immediate access to senior executives in some organisations,” she adds. “These messages also tend to be more informal, which has contributed to a more flat, less hierarchical communication structure.”
But what about their actual roles in government? Asked whether young people possess sufficient skills and knowledge to successfully make a strong public impact, Hill – as you might expect – mounts a stout defence, using the example of a friend who works for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to illustrate her argument. “She is working on micro-financing to help people in developing countries start their own business via short-term loans,” she reveals. “She is working directly with stakeholders and can quantify the impact she is making. Positions like this – very close to the mission of the agency – show how millennials are making a difference in terms of citizen outcomes.”
This proximity to power is key, believes Hill, who says that millennials thrive when they are close to the action. “It is easier to recruit and retain millennials for those positions that are actively engaged with the mission and where there is a direct link to outcomes. The harder case to make is for someone to go into HR or IT or acquisitions where you are clearly supporting the mission, but are further away from the ‘energy’ on the actual frontline,” she says. “We need to ensure that people who are not directly connected are still feeling engaged with the mission and with positive citizen outcomes.
Making an impact – US style
The sheer breadth of the US government – federal, state and local – affords young people many options when it comes to choosing a starting point for their career. But Hill believes that, irrespective of their choice, making the biggest impact is dependent on the recognition that government can’t do everything. “The most important places to focus our funding, energy and time are those in which the government plays a key role, and where the private sector may fall short,” she says.
“Take clinical trials, for example. There are four phases in these trials, and the private sector typically won’t invest in the first two phases because of the high rate of failure in these early stages. This is where government can step in. Even though phase 1 and 2 trials may fail, they still provide us with vital knowledge about which drugs and treatments don’t work. This allows us to redirect our attention and funding elsewhere. There would be a major gap if not for government funding of these early trials.”
One issue that does deserve a reset, though, is the reluctance to innovate or take risks – for fear of the media opprobrium that would follow. “We can pilot programmes and work with citizens to come up with unique solutions, but what impedes our effectiveness is that even a small failure can hit the front page and draw a lot of negative attention to both people and programmes. This makes for a very risk-averse culture,” she says. “Government is afraid of failing publicly – and rightfully so, after what has been said about public servants in the media. It will take a lot of work to improve this culture of risk aversion.”
Despite this, there are real examples of young leaders making a difference. Hill singles out Andrew Rabens, a Department of State employee who in 2013 won a Samuel Heyman Service to America Medal. “He received this award because of his success in leading an initiative to engage young leaders in the Middle East and North Africa,” she explains. “He brought young leaders from a variety of countries together, including those we don’t have easy diplomatic relations with, to focus on leadership development and communications training, enabling them to learn about democratic systems of government.”
Rabens’ early success signals that he possesses in abundance those key traits that young people bring to the table. Two of these – persistence and volunteer energy – are particularly important, says Hill. “Often in government we might feel it moves too slowly or you encounter resistance to new ideas and change,” she admits. “If someone brings persistence to their job they are going to find ways around these challenges and be creative with solutions to problems. And bringing volunteer energy makes you stand out from the crowd. People who enthusiastically volunteer to take on projects when no-one else steps forward are people who will open up opportunities for themselves and who will make great strides in their professional lives. In this way, young people are making real impact through their careers in government.”
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