America Needs a Rebirth of Public Service

We need every ounce of talent and energy to not only rebuild but reinvent our society.

Johanna Goodman
Johanna Goodman

Big jolts to our system—from Pearl Harbor to 9/11—have historically awakened a sense of national purpose, demand for government action, and respect for public service in a citizenry accustomed to seeing government as the source of troubles, not their remedy. The pandemic has now placed the country in the middle of another massive disruption. President Donald Trump’s farcical mismanagement of the coronavirus response, on the heels of his push to “deconstruct the administrative state,” has exacerbated the consequences of this disaster and exposed the dangers of that campaign. However, this crisis has also highlighted the dedication and expertise of public servants on the front lines of the pandemic.

If America has any chance to recover, let alone rescue a semblance of unity from the rubble of our polarized politics, we have to heed the admirable examples of these workers and seize this moment to end the war on government, revive our institutions, and shape a new era of public service.

Public service is in my blood. The son of a career Army officer, I grew up in the itinerant world of military families: By the time I was 17, we had moved a dozen times and I had attended three high schools. I came to know my country well, with a feel for its physical expanse and beauty, as well as its diversity and bustling possibility. I grew up with not only an abiding respect for the American military and rhythms of Army life, but an enduring admiration for public service.

Much of that came from my father’s example. He fought in Vietnam, negotiated with the Soviets on nuclear issues, and later became the head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He was a model of decency and dedication, and has always embodied for me the connection between service and love of country. When I was in graduate school and considering a career in the Foreign Service, I asked for his advice. “Nothing can make you prouder,” he wrote me in a letter, “than serving your country with honor.” I was convinced of that then, and I still am.

I took the entrance examination for the Foreign Service a week after American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran in November 1979, and I haven’t looked back since. Over three and a half decades as a diplomat, I experienced both the strengths and failings of public service. I witnessed genuine courage and resourcefulness in dangerous places abroad, and remarkable capacity for navigating other societies in the pursuit of U.S. interests.

I also saw how the State Department and other agencies can get in their own way—suffocated by bureaucracy; struggling to recruit, retain, and train; and too often risk averse in policy making. And I watched the slow and painful desiccation of government—political leaders far more interested in demeaning institutions than modernizing them, bureaucracies sinking beneath too many layers and procedures, and a public that saw a yawning gap between its interests and those of policy elites.

Trump rode those grievances to the White House, accelerating them with unprecedented venom. The catastrophically sad result after nearly four years of his leadership is that government agencies are adrift; career experts are ignored or maligned on everything, including their weather forecasts and their intelligence assessments; corruption is as rampant as oversight is repressed; and the whims of a clinically self-absorbed president overpower good governance.

The pandemic has laid bare the debilitating consequences of Trump’s assault on expertise and smart-government policies and programs, leaving the United States far more vulnerable and less resilient than it should be.

If terrible challenges can expose our weaknesses and self-inflicted wounds, they can also clarify the path before us. With historic levels of unemployment, nearly every sector of our economy under water, our health-care system strained to its limits, and our national interests at risk, we need every ounce of talent and energy that Americans have to offer to not only rebuild but reinvent our society. If ever there were a moment to call Americans to serve, it’s now. To help ensure that they answer that call, that a life in public service is appealing, three ingredients are necessary.

First, it is long past time to end the war on government. That is an argument not for uncritical reverence for public service, but rather for restoring respect for its crucial role in our democracy.

Bashing government and public servants is a remarkably durable American political pastime. Otto Passman, a crotchety representative from Louisiana, captured the mood in an exchange with a forlorn State Department official half a century ago. “Son,” he said. “I don’t smoke and I don’t drink. My only pleasure in life is kicking the shit out of the foreign-aid programs of the United States of America”—a sentiment that he and many of his colleagues applied with catholic abandon to government service in general, and that Trump has taken to a whole new level.

If our political leaders continue to belittle public service, hollow out government institutions, and put patriotic Americans in the crosshairs of our culture wars, bureaucratic drift and dysfunction will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the gap between citizens and the state will only grow.

Second, our leaders need to turbocharge our institutions’ reform. We can’t simply dismiss political attacks as the work of the ignorant and mean-spirited. While many of those critiques may be unfair and ill-informed, they’re not without foundation. The hiring practices of the federal civilian service are badly outdated. The workforce is top-heavy generationally: More than one-third of federal employees are eligible for retirement in the next five years, and only 6 percent are under 30. The rules and processes of personnel systems are creaky and cumbersome. Recruitment and retention—especially in high-priority skills such as science and technology—are growing problems, and too many agencies drown themselves in red tape. That’s hardly an effective advertisement for public service.

My old institution, the State Department, has been badly battered in this administration, its career officials alternately sidelined and left hanging by their leadership in the face of a persistent political barrage. However, State could do a lot to make itself more responsive, more agile, and more modern. It could remove some of its many layers of bureaucracy and declutter its decision making. It could do much better at shaping a more diverse diplomatic service, which looks like the society it represents. It could focus more systematically on professional education, losing the conceit that diplomacy is a profession learned simply by osmosis, without doctrine or regular training. Smart reforms from within could set the stage for dramatic initiatives such as a new Foreign Service Act, the first since 1980, to create a diplomatic corps fit for a more competitive and complicated international landscape.

Finally, this is a moment to think big about public service, to help repair the disconnect between citizen interests and the wider national interest. A recent bipartisan group, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, produced a report this spring that offers as good a road map as any I’ve seen.

Without stepping into the constitutional and budgetary minefield of mandatory national service, the commission suggests creative ways in which a “culture of service” could be elevated in the United States. That starts with a revival of serious civic education in our schools—not an insignificant priority for a society in which one out of five adults can’t identify any of the three branches of government. The report also calls for exponential growth in existing service and volunteer programs, including public enterprises such as AmeriCorps and private organizations such as Teach for America. The pandemic experience ought to lead to new national service programs, a public-health reserve corps, for example, and a similar disaster-relief initiative to cope with the harsh realities of a changing climate.

A new administration could also increase incentives for public service, both as a career and in shorter periods of engagement. Those could include an array of educational and economic benefits: greater loan repayment or tuition assistance; GI bill–like programs, based on the length of committed public service; and ROTC or JROTC-like programs to promote interest in civilian service. The next administration could set a target of 1 million publicly supported national service-year opportunities within the next decade, more than 10 times the number today. That is an ambitious goal, but hardly a moon shot, and it could help rebuild social capital in a society that sorely lacks it.

Imagining the rebirth of public service is easier than realizing it. Inertia is a stubborn antagonist. Resource constraints will be even more severe after the pandemic, and the bandwidth of a new White House even more constricted. But it is also difficult—during this once-in-a-generation public-health, economic, and political calamity—to recall another moment when the call to serve was more important.