To combat the negative image of public service, especially among talented college graduates, the Partnership for Public Service aims to portray the government as an ideal employer.
Four years is not a long time to get something accomplished, especially a wholesale revitalization of America's public service system. But in that time, the Partnership for Public Service (PPS) has at least gotten a good start.
Civil service has what essentially amounts to an image problem, says Bethany Hardy, who holds the refreshingly old-school title of press secretary at PPS. "There's a big communications challenge there because many people don't realize that public service is government service. When they think, 'I want to help my community,' they think 'I'm going to go volunteer at a soup kitchen.'"
So the partnership attacks the issue of civil service on several fronts, and effective communications is key to the success of each.
Its most ambitious educational outreach project is the Call to Serve program, a PPS-assembled network of more than 500 colleges and universities across the country that are committed to encouraging more students to enter government jobs.
"We produce handbooks for the career counselors at all those colleges, field-specific," says Hardy.
In addition to providing resources to overworked counselors, the partnership runs a website, calltoserve.org, that targets mid-career professionals, as well as college students seeking information on how to break into civil service.
Doing its part
Samuel Heyman, a Justice Department official in the 1960s, founded the PPS in 2001. He left civil service decades ago to run his family's real-estate development business. But he always treasured his time in government.
As the new millennium came, contacts at Harvard Law School, his alma mater, told him that interest in civil service among the best and brightest of the nation's work force was waning.
Distressed but hopeful, Heyman pledged $25 million of his own money to found the PPS, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group based in Washington, DC, whose stated mission is to "make the government an employer of choice for talented, dedicated Americans," using educational outreach, lobbying, coalition building, and public-private partnerships.
The organization did not waste any time. "[In 2001] we were about three or four people, and now we're almost 30 people, so we've grown considerably," says Hardy.
A four-person team is dedicated to fulfilling the communications function, with others focused on community affairs and government relations. Hardy handles media relations; a publications director writes all of the group's reports and executive speeches; and a marketing manager coordinates branding issues, maintaining a unified look and style in every document produced. The VP of corporate communications job is currently open.
Of course, filling the massive ranks of the federal government is not just the duty of job seekers - the government itself needs all the help it can get.
The demand for new and improved technological skills, the looming retirement of hundreds of thousands of baby boomers, and intense competition from the private sector are all conspiring to make the task harder than ever. In the next five years, nearly 1 million employees - 50% of the entire federal work force - will be eligible for retirement.
The PPS does its part through its Agency Partnerships program, which matches federal agencies in need with PPS human resources experts, who assist various agencies on a pro-bono basis. Most of the PPS staff has a private sector background, and they bring a creative approach to the government's hiring practices.
For example, partnership research shows that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Department of Education all face the most pressing staffing needs in the US government. The PPS stepped in with what it calls an "extreme hiring makeover" for those agencies.
Not only has it offered its expert assistance, but it has partnered with Monster.com to produce content for special public service web pages on the jobs website to attract candidates to the areas of greatest need.
"Many people don't have enough information about how to work for the government," notes Hardy, "so that's really our number one communications goal, putting that kind of information in peoples' hands."
The partnership also encourages best practices within the sometimes restrictive confines of the government.
"On one hand, our mission is to inspire people to government service," Hardy says. "And on the other hand, we work with the federal government to help make it a first-rate workplace. So we have two audiences."
Reaching out to agencies
Despite the reputation of federal agencies as being closed and unreceptive, the PPS has been successful in persuading them to accept their assistance. "They've taken a really admirable step, which is admitting that they're being challenged and saying, 'We're in need of help here,'" Hardy says.
The research department of the PPS stays busy compiling an annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report and spreading that information through a website, bestplacestowork.org. The report is based on an annual survey given to federal employees and can produce unpredictable results - recently, a NASA office in Alabama held the top spot.
To ensure that lawmakers are on board with its goals, the PPS has an extensive legislative affairs department. Its most notable success has been the organization of the Congressional Public Service Caucus, which enlisted 40 members of Congress in its cause. "Through that caucus, we provide forums that will help us raise awareness among this key group of policymakers about what kinds of things need to be done to fix the labor shortage facing the federal government," says Hardy.
Its lobbying work has paid off in several legislative successes, particularly the passage of the Chief Human Capital Officers Act, which created a high-level post in each federal agency tasked with planning for personnel needs.
Joel Fleishman, a PPS board member and director of the Heyman Center for Ethics, Public Policy, and the Professions, as well as a law professor at Duke University, says that the organization's success has been astounding. It has gotten three legislative provisions passed by Congress since its inception. "How many 4-year-old, not-for-profit organizations can you name that start off with a legislative enactment every year it's been in existence?" he asks.
One reason that government work might have trouble attracting top talent out of college is young people's perceived idealistic clash with the policies of the current administration. But Fleishman believes that the partnership can effectively navigate the treacherous waters of political division. "This is an issue that really cuts across party lines," he says. "Why can't good conservative students be attracted to government in a period of conservative administration?"
Rosslyn Kleeman, a distinguished executive in residence at the Department of Public Administration, School of Business and Public Management, at The George Washington University, says she agreed to serve on the PPS board because she was impressed with its skill and commitment to bridging the gap between government and universities. "They've been a real sparkplug," she says. "They've gone beyond the usual places where government has gone to attract young people."
Kleeman is a vocal advocate for civil service among her students. Though studies have shown that many young people don't feel that the government is the best place for them to have a real impact on the world, she says that the work of the partnership's communications team has helped to change that perception. "The new materials that the partnership puts out help me a lot," she says. "The publications are excellent."
Kleeman points out that nonprofits, a key competitor with civil service for idealistic young talent, has lately been suffering from a lack of funding. "I don't see [nonprofits] expanding. I think government has real opportunities."
PPS will ultimately succeed in its mission if it can target its message well. "It's that information gap that we're really battling," says Hardy. "Nowhere do you have a better opportunity to make a difference in the world than by working for the government."
Press secretary Bethany Hardy
Marketing manager Lauren Langbaum
Publications director/staff writer Lamar Roberts