putting the civic back in civil service

Problem 1: Donald Trump has left the federal civil service demoralized and denuded. The Partnership for Public Service reports:

The Department of Education, for example, which has championed many controversial policies, lost more than 14% of its career workforce, while employment at the Department of Agriculture fell by almost 8%. … Non-foreign-service employment at the State Department fell by nearly 9% from December 2016 to December 2019, a period that saw nine senior positions turn over at least once. Currently, more than one-third of the assistant secretary or undersecretary positions are vacant or filled by acting officials, leaving career diplomats and civil-service staff without direction and many initiatives adrift. 

Problem 2: new and recent college graduates need jobs, yet few (at least in my experience) look to the federal civil service. That was true even when they admired the president. Note that the federal government employs 2.1 million civilians, so it is a big part of the labor market. It is ironic that many college students favor a larger role for the government but wouldn’t think of working for it.

Problem 3: many people do not trust the federal government or see it as their friend. As I wrote yesterday, “Maybe progressives are wrong about the advantages of government; maybe white working-class people are wrong about the drawbacks of government; but either way, it is hard to build a party of the left if the largest racial group in the lowest income stratum wants less government.” (Support for government among other racial and class groups is not very impressive, either.)

Problem 4: Affective polarization (meaning hatred of people from the other party) is a real threat to democratic institutions, and specifically to any chance of progress during the Biden Administration.

There might be one solution to all four problems. Federal civil servants can be, and often have been, very capable organizers and supporters of local collaborations. They have helped Americans to come together and address problems that communities define. See Carmen Sirianni’s Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance (Brookings Institution Press, 2009) and his Sustainable Cities in American Democracy (University Press of Kansas, 2020) for good examples. Although the latter book is about cities, see p. 37 and elsewhere for the constructive role of federal agencies.

To strengthen this federal role requires leadership at the cabinet level, professional development for civil servants at all levels, conferences and other gatherings to share best practices, awards for excellent work, and other concrete steps. It does not require congressional action.

The objective would be to repopulate the federal civil service with capable civic actors who strengthen communities, bring people together across lines of difference, make government actually work better, and help people to feel that it is their instrument.

See also from government to collaborative governance; welcome to CivicGreen; public participation helps environmental policy; the path not taken (so far): civic engagement for reform; investing in democracy: the case of CARE, etc

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.