Source: The Economist
In many rich countries, grooming young bureaucrats for a changing world is a struggle for their would-be bosses
AGED 25 and armed with a master’s degree in water management, Andrew Reeves has the very mix of youth and green-mindedness that many governments claim to need. Yet when he attended a Canadian government job fair in Toronto this autumn, he left after 20 minutes without handing out a single résumé.
He queued in front of a booth for the Canadian natural-resources ministry, only to be told that information on openings was best found on the ministry’s website. “I’d have preferred to do the whole thing by e-mail,” he grumbles. Such was his frustration that he settled instead for a small non-profit group specialised in recycling.
At a time when many administrations in the rich world face a looming talent shortage, because a huge cohort of civil servants is about to retire, anyone would think that governments would be trying harder, and in cleverer ways, to scoop up bright students now leaving college.
It is not simply a matter of replacing one set of mandarins with another: in an age when most policy issues (from climate change to migration) cut across ministries and state boundaries, the civil servants of tomorrow will have to be lateral thinkers, not pen-pushers. And for better or worse, the outcome of the global recession will be closer regulation of the world’s economic and financial systems, for years to come.
Especially in the English-speaking world, governments say they are trying hard to bring some private-sector pizzazz to all aspects of public administration, including recruitment. Among the legacies of Tony Blair’s term as prime minister of Britain is the idea that the “services delivered” by government can be monitored almost as precisely as a firm’s profits.
And Britain’s civil service got a jolt three years ago when Gill Rider—a partner in Accenture, a management consultancy—was given a wide-ranging brief to shake up the way personnel were used and rewarded. The results have been watched carefully in places like Canada, Australia and Ireland. Civil-service reforms can work best in smallish territories—Denmark, Finland, Scotland, Wales, the Canadian provinces—says Tony Dean, a British-born Canadian who has switched from being a bureaucrat to studying bureaucracy. (Outside the English-speaking, Nordic and Teutonic worlds, one of the few countries often cited as a model for administrative reform is Singapore, which pays its bureaucrats well so as to stem corruption.)
However well-planned, internal reforms may not be enough to solve the basic problem—common to most of the leading industrial democracies—of competing for talent with commerce and voluntary groups, and then retaining the loyalty of a fickle, sceptical generation. “If we have any energy left after the trials of a competitive American college, we turn to private corporations if we have debt to repay, and to the non-profit sector if we want to make the world better,” says Robert Ochshorn, who has just graduated in computer sciences from Cornell University.
In simple numerical terms, the personnel gap opening up is vast. A report by the OECD, a rich-countries’ club, found that in 13 of the member countries surveyed, at least 30% of central-government workers were 50 years of age or older. Generous early-retirement provisions mean that many will leave their posts fairly soon.
To replace them, governments will have to offer something more than the steady life that attracted the older caste of mandarins. “We’re a squirmy generation,” admits Tyler Hunt, a University of Toronto student who is about to start looking for work. “The idea of settling into a job for 30 years just isn’t appealing.”
Today’s high-flyers want multi-disciplinary careers, the ability to rise as high and fast as their talents allow, and the freedom to move in and out of government work, says Linda Bilmes, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and co-author (with Scott Gould) of a book* that predicts a crisis in America’s public service.
Even those keenest on working for the nation may find their loyalty tested, she notes. A State Department officer who masters a hard language may get dozens of job offers, from private firms or global institutions. The “stove-piped” structure of government careers in most OECD countries takes little account of these new realities; talent that leaves is unlikely to return.
In any case, before you can think of retaining the best employees, you have to get them in the door. In the United States, the complexity of recruitment deters eager youngsters. As Ms Bilmes points out, advertisements even for modest posts are “filled with jargon, acronyms and unexplained requirements” such as “eligibility under 5 CFR 330.60 (b)”.
In the short term, the recession will certainly increase the number of graduates who are willing to surmount these hurdles. But in the contest for really marketable skills, government will often be at a disadvantage. For a young biochemist, working for a big pharmaceutical firm is far more tempting than government research. It is the same for graduates trained in intellectual-property law or telecoms.
On the lowest rungs of the career ladder, salaries in America’s public sector can be quite competitive with the private sector; but at the highest levels, the differential is vast. In the private sector, and above all in finance, successful types earn many times more than public servants with huge responsibilities. An added turn-off for would-be American bureaucrats is that top positions are often filled by political fiat, not merit.
In many rich countries, there is a hint of desperation in the way some public employers try to present their work as glamorous. “Did you know we have our own CSI [Crime Scene Investigation] team?” asks the website of Ontario’s government, citing an American television show. British Columbia stresses long holidays (time to hike and ski), while in Britain, potential mandarins are told of the heroic role they might play in a catastrophe.
In some rich democracies, the personnel problem is felt only in specific areas. In Australia, for example, the elite stream of civil servants still attracts brilliant applicants, but hiring accountants and IT specialists for lower positions is harder, says Peter Shergold, an ex-cabinet secretary.
In his view, the public sector should be looking not just for high IQs but a new skill: that of negotiating with the many agencies (including non-profit and private bodies) to which government is being farmed out. Old, vertical bureaucracies are ill-adapted to this task; flexible youngsters will have to do better. For that reason, perhaps, Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, recently asked his top bureaucrat for a plan to shake up the entire civil service.
If there is one rich democracy where state service is revered, it is France. Competition to get into elite institutions like the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA, a springboard for bureaucrats and politicians) is still fiercely meritocratic. For the 2009 intake, 1,352 applicants took the exam for just 80 places. Government jobs are in huge demand. In 2007 roughly 178,000 aspirants took the exam for the highest of the three grades of civil servant, comprising just 24,000 jobs. Some 44% of the successful recruits were actually overqualified.
“As the French see it, joining the civil service is not generally considered a track like any other, but a decision to devote one’s life to the public interest,” purrs an official report. Some 70% of French respondents told Ipsos, a pollster, that the civil service had a good image, and they would like their children to join.
Still, there are signs, at least, of change in the process whereby alumni of the ENA move seamlessly into the senior ranks of administration. For one thing, énarques (as graduates of the school are called) are moving on from the civil service into top private-sector jobs, in banking and insurance; and (unlike two of his four predecessors) President Nicolas Sarkozy did not attend the school. Nor did most of his cabinet. In future, énarques will no longer be assigned to state jobs on the basis of their grades; they will apply in a more-or-less open procedure.
Even in mandarin-minded France, the problem of an ageing civil service is felt. In 2005 the average age of a civil servant was 42, three years more than the private-sector mean. Under a plan supposed to take effect by 2012, Mr Sarkozy wants to cut the total number of civil servants while hiking pay and incentives for those who stay.
There is also stiff competition for positions in the European Union bureaucracy, whose culture is heavily French. The hurdles are worth negotiating for anyone who likes the stimulation of a multilingual, multicultural environment, says Aurélien Juliard, a successful applicant for a recent batch of 200 posts. Some 19,000 hopefuls sat an exam, and were whittled down to 600; they then faced a second exam and an essay, on the basis of which 300 were summoned for an oral interrogation. The bureaucrats of Brussels do not enjoy the same public esteem as the sleek administrators of Paris, but they are well rewarded in other ways.
In places like Canada, where the need to hire and deploy government personnel in a more rational way is recognised in principle, at least, sensible changes have had unexpected results. Hiring for Canada’s public sector has been decentralised, allowing those who are closest to the job to make the selection. And mobility within the civil service has increased, creating the sort of environment that young recruits want. But a report by the Public Service Commission of Canada, which oversees the hiring and welfare of 210,000 federal civil servants, has noted some drawbacks. Almost one-third of respondents to a survey said they had had three or more supervisors in the past three years; half told another survey that rapid staff turnover had caused problems.
Morale in any civil service, and its attractiveness to recruits, are also affected by factors unrelated to promotion ladders or pay-scales. The political mood, for example. In the view of Ms Bilmes, the malaise of America’s bureaucracy reflects an overzealous response to Ronald Reagan’s dictum: the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
In the Obama era, things may be different—not just in the United States, but in democracies that emulate America. As 21-year-old Mr Ochshorn puts it, “Our elected politicians long created an impression of government as stale and rife with bureaucracy…but my peers are proud of having elected Obama, and that has improved the image of government.” If hopes like that prove overblown, clever youngsters will not be slow to notice.
* “The People Factor: Strengthening America by Investing in Public Service.” Brookings Institution Press.