05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ready to Serve

In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy spoke of an ideal and summoned a generation to care, to act and to contribute. "Public Service," he said, "is an honorable profession." After three decades during which that ideal was dishonored by a recurring hostility toward government and public purpose, another young president has come to office and made the call to service virtually a national anthem.

The unprecedented one and a half million Americans who assembled on the National Mall for Barack Obama's inauguration heard him speak of "the spirit of service - a willingness to find meaning in something greater than ourselves." Today millions are ready again to make a difference across our national life - in local communities, in private and voluntary endeavors, in non profits and, yes, in government itself. Many who truly are the best and the brightest are now drawn to public careers - not primarily because government is a growth sector in a global slowdown, but because they believe that this honorable profession offers a chance, in countless ways, to advance change and achieve the promise of America for others as well as themselves. They know a government career doesn't pay as much, but it offers far more than material rewards.

Still a season of service can't be powered by idealism alone. We need from government not just soaring words, but concrete deeds. To equip federal agencies to meet urgent and complex problems - reducing unemployment and poverty, rising to excellence in education for all our children, building sustainable cities in a sustainable environment, and delivering affordable health care to all our people - will require new commitments to encourage and enlist a new generation of effective and innovative talent. Congress can write the goals into law, but they're just words on paper without capable professionals who will make them real in life as well as in law.

So we need a series of specific steps to make it possible for outstanding students, regardless of background or wealth, to aspire to federal service - and to make it practical for them to join once they graduate.

The proposal for Roosevelt Scholars would be a powerful start and it would send a signal that this is a priority. Introduced in the Senate by Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, and George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, the bill is named for Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the U.S. civil service. It would set up a system to nominate promising young candidates, with a small non profit foundation conducting a competitive selection each year. Fifty students would receive full tuition at the college or graduate or graduate school level and a stipend for living expenses in return for working for at least three years after graduation in designated federal positions. The proposal also has bipartisan sponsorship in the House.

Obviously, fifty top-rank recruits are not enough when we know that federal agencies will need to hire 273,000 replacements in the next 3 years to carry out highly specialized, "mission critical" functions. But the Roosevelt Scholars Program can inspire many more to compete for the 50 slots - and to choose public service, at every level of government, if they are given a pathway.

To recognize and reward the value of public service at every level, Congress has also enacted federal student loan forgiveness for graduates who work in government or nonprofits or ten years while making their scheduled loan repayments. That measure, too, needs to be widened in scope and generosity. The cost would be relatively minimal - and repaid for decades to come in better and more efficient public service.

Last spring, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act, a landmark law that will add 175,000 volunteers to AmeriCorps and four new national service programs. The impact will be felt across the nation for years or decades to come. The message was clear: The era of service has returned.

To realize its full promise, we have to honor public service by encouraging it not only as part of a lifetime, but as the profession of a lifetime. Let's begin by passing the Roosevelt Scholars Act and pledging ourselves in our time to T.R.'s belief that what the federal government needs in its agencies is "merit" - and as much of it as possible.