Human Capital Update

By Force, Marie S. | The Journal of Government Financial Management, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Human Capital Update


Force, Marie S., The Journal of Government Financial Management


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It's been 40 years since President John F. Kennedy issued his famous call to public service. Judging by current trends, public service could use a Kennedy-esque jolt right about now as fewer and fewer people are asking what they can do for their country.

After JFK's rousing inaugural address, Americans flocked to government jobs.They became civil servants in the federal government, they went to workfor state, local and county governments as well as school districts. On par with holy orders, the call to public service was no less noble.

In the ensuing decades, public service lost some of its luster as citizens became increasingly disillusioned with their government in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, budget deficits and highly publicized episodes of mismanagement. In addition, government salaries failed to keep pace with the private sector during the roaring economy of the 1990s.

Today it seems that even those most qualified to be public servants are seeking employment elsewhere. The PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government recently reported that just 34 percent of Harvard University's public policy graduates actually ended up working in the public sector last year.

"Public policy students, whose training is intended to produce skillful managers, advocates and analysts for public programs, are increasingly likely to enter other sector employment on graduation and less likely than their predecessors to plan long-- term careers in government" said Carol Chetkovich, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who authored the Endowment's report, "Winning the Best and Brightest: Increasing the Attraction to Public Service."

As we enter the 21 st century, government faces a people shortage that many are calling a crisis. Downsizing was the keyword in the 1990s and while most saw the need to reduce the overall size of the federal government, the reductions were not done strategically. Rather, cuts were made through attrition, hiring freezes and early retirement offerings, all of which failed to consider long-term staffing needs.

In the next few years, as the baby boomers reach the end of their careers, nearly 30 percent of the federal work force will be eligible to retire outright and 20 percent more can apply for early retirement. State and local governments face similar challenges. The "people drain" is finally getting the attention of Congress years after leaders such as Comptroller General David M. Walker and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) first sounded the alarm.

"The federal government today faces pervasive human capital challenges that are eroding the abilities of many agencies-and threatening the ability of others-to economically, efficiently and effectively perform their missions" said Walker in testimony on July 31 before the House Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy.

Walker, who heads the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), has been a leader in bringing attention to the pending human capital crisis. In January, GAO included strategic human capital management on its "high-risk list" of agencies and programs at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.

Voinovich, who as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, released a report late last year that reached similar conclusions.

In scheduling hearings on the matter earlier this year, he was clear that the issue demands immediate and thorough attention from Congress and the administration.

"We could face serious consequences to our national security, health and safety, and economy if we fail to address this critical issue now. At the same time, the human capital crisis creates an opportunity for Congress and the Bush administration to reshape the federal work force for the 21st century. It is time for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work," said Voinovich, who is now the ranking member of the subcommittee since the Democrats regained the Senate majority earlier this year. …

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