The United States Department of Talent

To build a first-rate modern labor force, some federal agencies might need a shakeup.

Andrew Harnik / AP

If you tell an audience these days that the way to solve big national problems is to reorganize the federal government, you’re liable to get laughed offstage. And I can understand why. Not only is faith in the federal government at near-historic lows, but the record of some past efforts at federal reorganization does not necessarily inspire confidence. However, I’m going to argue here that one of the keys to making America a more educated and economically competitive nation is to take a number of different federal agencies and combine them into a new entity, which I will call the U.S. Department of Talent.

Selling people on this idea won’t be easy, given the poor track record on this front. Take the Department of Homeland Security, created by George W. Bush after 9/11 and generally seen by experts as something of a disaster. An agglomeration of 22 already existing federal agencies, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Border Patrol, the new department has struggled for years to define its mission and coordinate its constituent parts. And while it has made efforts to improve in recent years, the DHS still has the lowest morale of any federal department and remains on the Government Accountability Office’s list of “high-risk” agencies, vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.

Or, consider Jimmy Carter’s creation of the Department of Energy in 1977, another troubled reorganization in which widely different government functions (developing advanced weaponry, regulating interstate electricity sales) were placed in a single entity with conflicting and ever-changing missions (promoting nuclear energy, cleaning up nuclear waste sites, sharing scientific knowledge, keeping national security secrets, and so on).

So yes, it’s true that some big government reorganizations have gone poorly. But it’s also true that others have gone quite well. Lyndon Johnson’s establishment of the Department of Transportation in 1966, for example, has long been considered successful at bringing numerous far-flung agencies, from the Federal Aviation Administration to the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, under one roof and providing some semblance of a coordinated national transportation policy. The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, is widely lauded for having reduced inter-service rivalries in the Pentagon. Another success is Bill Clinton’s creation of the Corporation for National and Community Service in the early 1990s. (I played a small role in that work as a consultant and adviser to the senior leaders of the agency.) By merging the nascent AmeriCorps national service program with existing service programs like VISTA, the CNCS has led to a true national service movement, one in which hundreds of thousands of individuals have participated in everything from tutoring at-risk students to helping communities rebuild from natural disasters.

Government reorganizations can work, then, if they’re well thought through, focused around clear missions, and aimed at real national needs. I believe that one of our biggest needs is to develop more and greater talent.

By “talent” I don’t mean just innate abilities (Americans have that in spades, though they could use a lot more). Talent is a complex amalgam of capabilities that lead to success in personal lives and careers. It consists of education, provided in K-12 schools and universities; skills and training, learned in community colleges and on the job; and values, such as determination, individual initiative, ingenuity, and service to others, that are rooted in our culture. That synergy goes beyond the individual, impacting society as well. Talent fuels economic growth and puts Americans to work. With the economy so radically changed over the past decade, we need a new wave of innovation to grow new jobs in new sectors. We need talented innovators, from both here and abroad, to help create that wave, and we need a 21st-century education system to train citizens to hold those jobs.

Though government is not always the solution to our nation’s biggest challenges, it is clearly one tool in the toolbox. The federal government, in particular, can have a unique impact on national priorities when it operates effectively, efficiently, and with clear goals and outcomes. That’s because the federal government is well positioned to address the national talent needs of a mobile, interdependent society.

But right now it is not structured to do so. It is unable to respond in a timely way to market forces. It is slow to change, or even to address its own structural deficiencies. Even when solutions are out there, they are very hard to implement on a federal level.

Martha Kanter, the former chancellor of one of the largest community college districts in the nation and now a faculty member at New York University, spent five years in the federal Department of Education. As undersecretary of education, the nation’s top federal higher-education position, Kanter encountered many of the obstacles to progress on the federal level, no matter the political party running the show or its objectives.

“Government is not fully designed for success. At least half of teacher preparation programs, for example, make no sense anymore,” she confessed when I talked with her nearly a year after she returned to academia. “We don’t have the will to remove any more layers. It’s just calcified. We have not focused enough on collaboration over competition.” She cited the lack of synchronicity and teamwork in Washington. “There is so much competition internally in the government. It’s hard to execute.”

Candid, troubling, and true.

So where does the U.S. sit when it comes to federal policy related to talent development and deployment? The answer is complex—and that’s exactly the problem. For every high-quality outcome that can be pointed to—like the higher rates of low-income student access to higher education as a result of the Pell Grant program—there are other efforts that have failed. For example, the Department of Labor’s One-Stop Job Centers were intended to be an all-in-one resource for employment seekers, providing job seekers with career counseling and connections to both job opportunities and education and training programs. Unfortunately, they have failed to live up to their promise. A research initiative of the Brookings Institution has pointed out that while such employment programs can be effective at connecting people with jobs, the One-Stops have been hamstrung by funding that has declined as need has grown coupled with poorly thought-out federal regulations; as a consequence, too many workers have failed to locate and lock in on the right opportunities. What’s needed, according to the Brookings research, are performance measures that encourage cost-effective One-Stop programming that leads to higher wages, more tax revenue, and less taxpayer spending on unemployment insurance.

Beyond the mixed outcomes,  the incomplete nature of some policies can also we pointed to. There is ample evidence that the Pell program, for example, has been a great success in helping low-income students—many of them minority, or first-generation college attenders—get into college. But getting into college should not be our only goal as a society—surely it is desirable for those students to benefit from this access. They should be completing college and demonstrating that they’ve acquired skills and knowledge that can help them succeed in the workplace, and in life.

The evidence that Pell has been effective on this front is decidedly less clear. In 2013, an analysis supported by the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation determined that the intentions and outcomes of the Pell Grant program were not fully aligned, serving two distinct and unconnected populations with different goals (the traditional college student and adults over the age of 24). This often resulted in disappointing completion rates. Clearly this is an example of a well-intended federal policy in need of redesign.

Adding to the uncertainty is that these policy efforts are truly atomized. What the Department of Education does in terms of its postsecondary-education programs has little or no relation to what the Department of Labor might do, and even less to what the Immigration Service thinks or does about talent—especially talent coming from abroad.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a new problem. Over the course of several decades, and with different parties controlling both Congress and the White House, the issue of poor coordination and collaboration across agencies has surfaced time and again. In the mid-1990s, Republican Congressmen William Goodling and Steve Gunderson proposed a merger of the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education. Their proposal was primarily aimed at efficiency—reducing investment at a time when the nation clearly needed to ramp up its efforts to improve worker capacity. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich (whose autobiographical book Locked in the Cabinet is a telling report on the frustrations of being in government, even as a member of the president’s inner circle) rightly opposed this merger, saying in testimony that the proposal would neither save money nor improve services.

Merging such complex agencies—the relatively focused Department of Education, which works to improve access to education for underserved populations and helps prepare students for work and life, and the Labor Department, which focuses not only on workforce preparation but also on labor standards, unemployment insurance, worker health and safety, and a range of other services—is indeed a bad idea, and would have been messy, time consuming, and, probably, fruitless.

Yet even Reich has acknowledged that it makes little sense that the U.S. has a Labor Department focused on workforce preparation as one of its core goals and an Education Department where workforce preparation is a relatively small budget item. In his 1992 book, The Work of Nations, Reich argued that a country like the United States has two main resources to define its success: infrastructure (like roads and telecommunications systems), and workers. He suggested that the capacity of workers to contribute to national success hinges on their ability to meaningfully contribute to both their own success and the national economic and social fabric of the country. And yet investment in education and “training” was disconnected from this reality, with the separate policies and systems led by Education and Labor rarely connecting. Shouldn’t, Reich asked, there be better coordination between the two?

Maddeningly, little has changed in the two decades since he offered that advice. Indeed, in the first term of the Obama administration, a high-ranking and respected education policy leader, Jane Oates, served as assistant secretary of labor overseeing the critical Employment and Training Administration, among other key Labor Department responsibilities. She led with conviction and purpose, doing well with the hand that she was dealt. Yet despite her considerable talent, and her former experience as Senator Ted Kennedy’s chief education adviser, she was unable to end the discord between Labor and Education.

My own experience in Washington over the course of two decades was that there was little collaboration, if any, between agencies. Sure, various interagency task forces and working groups were (and still are) created, but the net result of that collaboration working at a macro level is difficult to assess. Today, when people talk about the impact of federal policy on meeting labor force needs, for example, they rarely refer to the Pell Grant program, even though it is an enormously important investment in talent development (roughly $32 billion in Pell Grants was awarded to students in 2013). But because it is seen as an education program—one that is clearly and unequivocally the purview of the Department of Education—there are precious few examples of ways in which this key program can be said to directly drive our nation’s talent development. To do so would be considered dangerous by the advocates of the Pell program, who frequently tell me that they worry it could become conflated with “lesser” efforts like the job training programs of the Labor Department.

So what’s the solution? What’s needed is an agency that does two things really well. First, it must be clear about its goals and how policies align with those goals, and report honestly and accurately about what works and what doesn’t.

Second, it must have the capacity and authority to cut through the red tape, bureaucratic turf protecting, and collective noise of competing constituencies.

No current federal agency can solve these problems on its own. The sum has to be greater than the parts. The only way the U.S. will ever get to a truly coordinated national talent strategy is to make sure that the people who control the allocation of resources and policy-implementation responsibilities actually work together.

What should be included in this new Department of Talent? Avoiding the wonkish issues of congressional committee jurisdiction (turf is a real impediment to change) and agency capacity, I’d propose three main entities as a starting point:

  • the current functions of the Department of Education in their entirety;
  • the Employment and Training Administration of the Department of Labor; and
  • the talent recruitment functions of the Citizenship and Immigration Service under the Department of Homeland Security.

Why these entities? Let’s start with the most obvious, the Department of Education. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to slice off parts of this agency—all of its work is aimed at developing and deploying a diverse pool of talent for the nation, from early childhood through adult education. The mission statement of the Department of Education makes this clear: to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.

Including the ETA from the Labor Department is critical because it administers federal job training and worker dislocation programs, federal grants to states for public-employment service programs, and unemployment insurance benefits. These services are primarily provided through state and local workforce-development systems, and they’re key parts of a broader strategy to move people into the workforce.

Meanwhile, the USCIS is home to the Entrepreneurs in Residence Program, an online reference for American employers and foreign talent. Its purpose is to generate feedback from the business community on its staffing needs and to provide skilled immigrants with the information to navigate the visa application process. This program also contains start-up training, workshops, and libraries for immigration officers. In other words, it’s an effort to sync the needs of the business community with the potentially available overseas talent and encourage that talent pool to come to America with the promise of a streamlined immigration policy. Great. But is it not odd that this function would be housed in the same federal apparatus—the Department of Homeland Security—as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is also responsible for enforcement and deportation?

Getting this function out of Homeland Security also helps address a mixed message. The ICE’s job is heavily weighted toward enforcing immigration laws and regulations that are critical to our national economic and social security. With the USCIS housed in the same agency, the DHS is in the odd position of granting the rights to visit or stay in the United States through visas, green cards, and other mechanisms.

If you want visual proof, take a look at the ICE home page and you’ll see that the news ticker is replete with stories about catching predators, violent offenders, and drug traffickers. Sometimes these headlines are hard to distinguish from the headlines that welcome students and others to study in the U.S. The mix of law-enforcement and national-security protections simply doesn’t mesh with strategies designed to meet the nation’s broad needs for talent.

In addition to these three core agencies, a fourth, the Office of Head Start, now in the Department of Health and Human Services, might also be considered for inclusion, given how important Head Start is to the school readiness of vulnerable children. Also, given the mixed quality of Head Start programs nationally, a move to a talent-focused agency would enable the program to refocus its mission on providing rigorous early-childhood education, rather than child care. This shift is a more complex nut to crack, in part because Head Start is tightly intertwined with other benefit programs housed in the Administration for Children and Families at the HHS.

The Department of Talent would create the possibility of several important outcomes. One is greater efficiency and focus. Think about an agency that could develop and implement strategies for high-quality, locally managed workforce-development programs, and highly focused global-recruitment strategies for meeting the nation’s workforce gaps. Ideally, there would be a coordinated approach that seamlessly relates K-12 standards to learning outcomes frameworks for education and training beyond high school.

Greater efficiency also ties to the issue of effectiveness—the actual success of the programs and strategies being managed by the agency. The Department of Talent would tie together approaches that have been disconnected, and bureaucratically entrenched, and replace them with ones focused on outcomes. The net result would be an agency actually aimed at the true outcome of the policies inherent in the current disconnected mess—talent—rather than an agency that is focused on processes and tools like “education,” “training,” “visas,” and so on.

The former Massachusetts governor and presidential contender Mitt Romney famously spoke about his desire to staple a permanent resident card on every foreign college graduate’s diploma. The idea, simply put, was to keep the talent created in our colleges and universities—a fairly unobjectionable idea on its own. Yet within that idea lies a host of questions that would be difficult for an agency that issues visas to answer. In what areas does the United States have workforce shortages, now and in the foreseeable future, that would be best served by issuing such visas? How do these foreign student graduates compare to the talent being developed in our own citizens. Shouldn’t an agency that has a better sense of our talent needs be positioned to assess workforce shortages and thereby make decisions about immigration status?

Internationally, several countries have created agencies that link both knowledge transmission—education and training—with knowledge development, in areas like technology, scientific achievement, and innovation. One example is Kenya’s Ministry of Higher Education, Science, and Technology, which oversees everything from teacher training to schoolhouse bricks and mortar, to childhood education, to higher education, to polytechnic training. Poland, South Sudan, Slovenia, and South Korea, just to name a handful, have similar agencies.

In America’s federal government, agencies have moved away from collaboration and consolidation. “There was some beauty in having a Health, Education and Welfare Department,” Martha Kanter told me. That agency, which closed in 1979, gave way to separate federal departments, one for education and one for health and human services, and, as a result, created more layers of bureaucracy as well as the competition Kanter mentioned earlier.

But what if this formula was reversed in pursuit of talent?

The Department of Talent would send a powerful message to the people of the United States, employers, and our global partners and competitors that the federal government is serious and strategic about its interest in developing, harnessing, and deploying talent in the country. It also would send a message about government and its potential to do good, if properly focused and aimed at clear results. Mitch Daniels, the former U.S. Office of Management and Budget director, Indiana governor, and fiscal-conservative hero whose current assignment is as a university president, was fond of saying during his gubernatorial tenure that he didn’t want to eliminate all government; he just wanted to make sure that the U.S. has the government actually needed. As he put it in his typically blunt way at a 2011 speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee, “We should distinguish carefully skepticism about big government from contempt for all government.” The U.S. Department of Talent might be one small step toward proving that government can work in a way that serves our shared interests as a country.

This post appears courtesy of Washington Monthly.