A government job once meant a degree of stability, owning a home, having a family.
Earlier this month, on a cold, foggy night in the Chicago Loop, students in a public administration class at DePaul University had a conversation about whether they wanted to be public administrators. They wondered, if federal shutdowns and unpredictable governing are the State of Public Service in 2019, maybe they didn’t care to become public servants?
They didn’t ask what their country could do for them.
They asked why they should do for their country.
Bradly Johnson sat at the front of the class wearing a concerned expression and a dark sweater. He said he didn’t feel confident, he felt scared. He said, “Maybe it’s a selfish reason, but I would worry about a paycheck — could it be taken away by someone with an agenda?” He said if anyone came to him right now with a federal job he’s perfect for, “I guess I would have to tell them, seriously, ‘Hell no.’
“I mean, do I want to be a part of that?”
Angela Tucker, seated in the back row, shook her head slowly. Her dad works for the Department of Defense, he was paid throughout the latest shutdown, he was essential. “But I wonder, should I work for a department that might be less likely to be affected by any future shutdowns? Or do I work for a department more aligned with my passions?”
The room went still.
They are graduate students, most in their mid-20s. They were seasoned; a handful already had worked for the federal government. But this was not what they signed up for when they considered public service — and there is statistical evidence that all of this wariness is having a toll on public administration programs nationwide.
The students’ textbooks were open to a section on “General Ethical Perspectives,” textbooks that never anticipated the general perspective that the U.S. federal government might partially close someday and not pay nearly one million public servants for a month, then only weeks later veer toward yet another shutdown, because the executive branch wants to build a gigantic wall on the Mexican border. For the almost two dozen students in MPS 594 Ethical Leadership in Public Service, recent history loomed large. So Samantha Loo, their instructor, who prides herself on discussing with students the everyday ramifications of a life in government, set aside time to ask her public service students if the lurching, uncertain trajectory of government had them rethinking the future.
“I mean, even if you’re not planning to work for the federal government,” she said to them, “how has (the potential for more shutdowns) effected outlooks on public service?”
The room was cold, the students buried beneath layers of sweatshirts, down jackets and knitted shawls. Luis Gonzales, wrapped in a heavy blanket, said he works in HR hiring, “and so I think the worry now is those individuals who might be passionate about public service might not, you know, consider work in a place that’s just not stable.”
Students said they can’t stop thinking of anxious families.
They said they can’t stop thinking about federal employees making long commutes to “jobs that are no longer the secure government work they thought they signed up for.”
In other words, working for the government now is like working anywhere. Curse the federal bureaucracy, but once, for millions, bureaucracy meant a degree of stability, owning a home, having a family.
James Perry, distinguished professor emeritus at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, said there was a time when a worker entering the government in the ’60s “might expect to spend 30 years in a federal job — certainly there are people there now who still have those type of jobs.”
Indeed, ask around and public administration schools report that enrollment is either up or booming; the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy says enrollment doubled in as many years. That said, students at many of these schools are considering nongovernment careers in advocacy groups, nonprofits or consulting firms.
“Plus, at least in Illinois, you have public service students who saw a state not being able to fund itself, and now they’re wondering ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” said Bob Blankenberger, chairman of the public administration department at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “It might be exacerbated lately but they see our ongoing love-hate with public administration, they hear the politicians’ vow to fix ‘lazy government workers’ at the same time those same people tend to rely on the good graces of their expertise. So they get distressed over the negative atmosphere and taking a step towards that job.”
Or as Rebecca Hendrick, director of the doctoral graduate studies program in public administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, put it: “I wouldn’t work for the federal government myself today, and I would instruct my own students to do the same.”
Despite what local universities say, according to the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration, national enrollment in public administration programs has been trending downward, particularly among those schools that have a curriculum focused on public administration at the federal level. The organization, a Washington-based group that provides accreditation to more than 300 university public administration programs, plans to formally study this year how the shutdown is affecting the attitudes of students.
Until then, ask a future public servant.
Patrick Hanley, a second-year graduate student at the Harris School, said “I firmly believe in public service, even at the federal level, but it breaks my heart.” He interned for the U.S. Senate, the Department of Justice and worked in the office of the city treasurer in Chicago. He intends “to work on high-impact interesting projects that bring service to people.” But “when your (college) debt payments are higher than your rent payments — and I’m a single guy without a family — your priorities are different. In a perfect world I would work directly for the government.”
Instead, he’s going into private consulting.
Perry said that at Indiana University, about 30 percent of public administration students now steer toward private consulting firms (that nevertheless often rely on government contracts). “The ‘why,’ however, is a combination of things. During the ’90s, (federal jobs) became less secure. There were shutdowns, yes. But hyperpartisanship now means coming to agreements is harder. And so we have started to see a decline in the pursuit of those bipartisan public interests we thought we had in common — like initiatives for clean air and water. You start to see disagreements in what public service means to us.”
There is optimism. Joe Wenzel, a UIC graduate student in public administration who served five years in the military, said some of his fellow students are “looking to the nonprofit side (after graduating) where at least they don’t have to deal with a random political appointee who doesn’t believe in the mission of the agency they run,” but for him, “all this turbulence within the government has only reinforced in me the need to have decent public servants.”
At Northern Illinois University, Kurt Thurmaier, chairman of the public administration department, said his program rarely hears about discouraged students, “because we never see the federal government as their pinnacle anyway.” He said the school — which claims to have graduated a third of the city managers in Illinois — sticks to local government, “and there are dysfunctional city councils but you don’t hear much about local governments shutting down over ideological clashes.”
Meanwhile, at DePaul, Meghan Mathew sat in the back corner. She had done two years in the Peace Corps, spent time in Zambia with developmentally disabled students.
She raised her hand slowly and spoke with a toneless anger.
“I feel pushed away from public service now, I don’t feel valued, because you see how someone who doesn’t value public service themselves can use power to take away health care and impact my family. So yeah, of course it affects my outlook, no question.”
Dana Dutcher nodded fast in agreement. She said that she worked for a nonprofit and would like to be part of an organization that works closer with government, “but to work for a government, with an ‘America First’ agenda, that doesn’t care about the human rights of its employees? I do have faith this will end when someone is out of office.”
Veronica Puryear listened and raised her hand.
She was a former political appointee in the Obama administration; she worked for the Department of the Treasury and was now studying for a masters in public administration. She said, “I’ll be quick. (A threat of shutdowns) happened to me when I worked for the federal government. But I had a sense of trust. Even with a political imbalance you sensed people would work hard to fix things before (a long shutdown) happened. I agree with Dana, maybe we’ll be done with this in two years. But that sense of trust has been violated. Deterioration has been set in motion, and maybe politicians have seen that shutting down government for a while is a thing they can do.”
A few seats away another public administration student leaned over to the student beside her and, once Puryear was finished, the student whispered: “Democracy! Democracy!”