Accepting the Call

Accepting the Call

Colbians choose government as the best route to public service

By Douglas Rooks '76 | Photos by Fred Field


 
"One of the most important and enduring competitive advantages that a country can have today is a lean, efficient, and honest civil service," Thomas Friedman asserts in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, his pivotal book explaining how the post-Cold War world works. With newly integrated markets and open borders, he writes, "the quality of your state matters more, not less than in the past."

Never the most glamorous career, government service has rarely been less popular.

"There has rarely been a time in our history when it's been more difficult to attract good people to public service. Those who do accept the call really are heroic swimmers against a swelling stream of deterrence."

After an upward blip following the 9/11 attacks, the trend has angled back downward, according to G. Calvin Mackenzie, Colby's Goldfarb Distinguished Professor of American Government. Public confidence has been declining since 1964, according to an ongoing University of Michigan survey. And Mackenzie cites more real-life reasons to avoid the public sector: "Low salaries, long hours, high stress, twenty-four hour news cycles, highly invasive ethics regulations."

Add the Ronald Reagan-inspired tradition of Republicans running against the federal government, notes Sandy Maisel, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government, and it seems a wonder that government is able to attract qualified applicants at all.

"There has rarely been a time in our history when it's been more difficult to attract good people to public service," Mackenzie said. "Those who do accept the call really are heroic swimmers against a swelling stream of deterrence."

Alumni employment data reflect the trend. There were many career government employees from the 1970s, a decline in the Reagan-era 1980s, a rebound under Clinton, and another decline of late.

But Colbians do accept the call, including everything from town clerks and archivists to commissioners of state departments, experts at such highly specialized federal agencies as NASA and the Centers for Disease Control. If these are the "heroic swimmers," why do they persist?

 
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