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 The hiring practices of the federal civilian service are badly outdated.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.