05/05/2009 09:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Celebrating Public Service

Our economy is in turmoil. A deadly flu must be contained. We are fighting two wars. Our planet is warming. Health care costs and the number of uninsured continue to rise. China and India are emerging as economic rivals. Now, more than ever, the American people need effective government.

We will not have the government that the times demand and the American people deserve without talented public servants. To build this government, we must celebrate public service and restore government's image as a place where our best and brightest join together to make a difference for our communities, our country, our world.

Simply put, good government starts with good people. Our nation is fortunate to have nearly 20 million dedicated citizens who work on our behalf as federal, state or local government employees.

But our public sector workforce stands at a crossroads. Government at all levels is about to lose many of its most experienced and expert workers, as the baby boomers who entered government during the Kennedy era prepare to retire.

There are serious questions about whether or not public agencies will be able to bring in the right people with the right skills to fill the looming talent gaps in the public sector.
New data from the Gallup Organization reveals valuable insights in government's recruiting challenges and opportunities.

On the positive side, interest in government jobs is up considerably since 2006. Although interest in private sector jobs, work for nonprofits and self-employment is stable, there are double digit increases in the percentage of Americans who express interest in jobs with the federal government, as well as state and local governments.

This increased interest is being fueled largely by the economic downturn. When asked why they would consider working in government, the most common responses, by far, were good health benefits, good retirement benefits and job stability.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the challenges facing our public sector require workers who are looking for more than just a stable paycheck.

Today's public school teachers need to give our children the math and science training they will need to compete in a globalized economy. Many of our first responders must become experts on counterterrorism strategies. Our regulatory agencies must hire economic experts who can understand sophisticated financial products and make sure the people on Main Street are not being taken for a ride by the folks Wall Street.

Nothing less than our best will do.

Unfortunately, negative perceptions of government will make it difficult to bring on the right people to meet government's talent needs. Gallup's research suggests that the top reason Americans would not consider a job in government is because government is too bureaucratic. Many also believe government does not offer jobs in their field and that it would be boring to work for government. And when given options, solid majorities believe the private sector does a better job of encouraging innovation and attracting the best workers.

To be clear, our government is not perfect and we should expect more from it, but we need to be constructive participants in making our government better, not disengaged critics. We should speak out when government gets it wrong, but we also need to recognize what is right in government.

We should recognize Robin Robinson, a federal scientist who is working to create a vaccine for the swine flu, having already developed a vaccine for the strain of bird flu that hit our shores in 2007. We should recognize Michael German of Atlanta who has built a coalition of 850 local officials to help homeless Americans, which has contributed to a 30 percent reduction in long-term homelessness. We should recognize Crystal Kaplan, a 35-year-old Foreign Service officer who led a multinational effort to resettle 100,000 refugees from the tiny Asian nation of Bhutan.

This week, we have an opportunity to recognize all of our public servants. As authorized by Congress, May 4-10 is officially "Public Service Recognition Week." Communities all across the country are hosting events to recognize their local unsung heroes. The biggest celebration will be in Washington on our National Mall, where representatives from dozens of agencies and our armed services will be on hand to share their stories of service. All Americans should take this occasion to thank the public servants they know for their contributions.

Now is the time that we do a better job of telling the true story of government, the story of Robin Robinson, the story of Michael German, the story of Crystal Kaplan, the story of a place where ordinary Americans put service above self to do extraordinary things.