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Government needs innovators, entrepreneurs, and disruptors

If you want to make large-scale change in the world, consider a stint in public service.

Government needs innovators, entrepreneurs, and disruptors
[Source photo: Caleb Perez/Unsplash]
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Editor’s note: The authors are the principals of M+D, which helped develop the Fast Government concept and may receive revenue from the partnership.

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Even before the spread of COVID-19 necessitated a series of large-scale government interventions, there has been a long-simmering sense that the public sector needs to up its game. The tech industry needs a regulatory overhaul. The urgent problem of climate change requires new infrastructure and public works programs at grand scale. The pace and complexity of issues like food security, economic inequality, and workforce displacement—not to mention coordinated pandemic preparedness and response—all require governments that are better, smarter, stronger, and faster than the ones we have now.

 Yet, the pipeline of talent dedicated to solving these monumental policy challenges is not in place. More than a third of federal civilian employees will begin retiring over the next five years, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, and fewer than 6% are under the age of 30. In contrast, 24 percent of the U.S. workforce is now made up of Gen Z.

This problem started long ago—consider that federal agencies last updated their hiring procedures in 1978—but the current crisis provides an opportunity to reimagine and reinvigorate the public sector. The U.S. federal government has more than two million employees, a budget of over $4 trillion, and responsibility for managing the world’s most advanced economy. It must be infused with the same talent and energy that we infuse startups and companies with in the private sector.

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In our work with corporations, foundations, and governments around the world, we develop programs, such as annual conferences and digital platforms, that convene influential stakeholders to drive impact. For years, speakers on conference stages and in virtual meetings have expressed the need for business and government to work together to solve urgent global challenges and advance economic progress. The public sector is responsible for developing some of the most important large-scale innovations in human history, including the internet, GPS, the interstate highway system, and social security. We must encourage a new generation of innovators to work in government if we ever hope to unleash a new era of scientific innovation.

In 2018, Michael Lewis interviewed Jeff Bezos onstage at an awards ceremony hosted by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit in Washington that advocates for better government. Bezos talked about his grandfather, “Pop,” a lifelong civil servant who worked as a messenger in Washington D.C. during the Great Depression and went onto senior positions at DARPA and the Atomic Energy Commission. When Lewis asked Bezos what might inspire young people to pursue careers in government service, Bezos noted that federal agencies have the same problem as a lot of very large companies, including Amazon. Namely, they have low “decision making velocity”. Young people don’t want to work inside organizations that are slow, he said, adding: “It’s not as fun.”

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The rising generation of employees say they want their jobs to have purpose, to contribute to positive change in the world, and to make a social impact. But they also want the latest technology, career dynamism, and the economic rewards of hard work. Within the next five years millennials and the generations that follow will make up over 75% of the workforce. We believe many of them should enter public service and drive change from the bottom up. Despite decades old systems and processes, federal employees are more committed than private sector employees to putting in extra effort to get a job done, according to data from the Partnership conducted by employee research firm Mercer. And because younger generations of workers are likely to switch jobs an average of four times in the first 10 years after graduation, working in government can be considered in the context of an entire career, not necessarily as an end in itself.

The new presidential administration, along with state and local governments across the U.S., now have the extraordinary opportunity to rebuild economies in ways that are more inclusive, dynamic, and sustainable. Imagine helping transform federal agencies to better combat cybercrime, working with environmental regulators to rethink climate policy, designing community-based business and startup ecosystems that reflect the diversity and entrepreneurialism of local citizens, or partnering with tech companies to design smart cities and develop advanced and responsive healthcare infrastructure. If you want to make a positive impact at scale, there’s really no better way than by working in government. It will also open other doors.

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In recent years, corporate CEOs and entrepreneurs have recognized the importance of creating business models that benefit not just shareholders but also employees, suppliers, customers, and crucially, the communities in which they operate. Companies looking for the right talent to address this new statement of purpose will find it among those who have dedicated themselves to public service. As economic power shifts from West to East, senior public officials in the U.S. will continue to go onto lucrative careers at banks, technology companies, and consulting firms. Skills navigating government helps sway decisions in parts of the world that are the new sources of growth.

Public sector experience is also invaluable inside nongovernmental organizations that increasingly influence large-scale change. Foundations controlled by icons of capitalism like Bill Gates, Laurene Powell Jobs, Mike Bloomberg, and the Koch family, assert enormous influence over the way ordinary citizens think about public policy and the way we solve global challenges like poverty, criminal justice, climate change, and public health. They often recruit their teams from the public sector.

The emphasis on rebuilding communities in the wake of the pandemic will continue to drive significant investments in infrastructure and intelligent urban planning at the local and state levels. Municipalities are now at the forefront of many global challenges—and global solutions—like climate action and smart cities. Decisions made by local officials have a very direct and personal impact on people and communities.

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Private companies will also be looking for public sector experience to advance public private partnerships. Last year, Mastercard partnered with over 200 cities across the U.S. to support digital financial aid disbursements to channel money to underserved communities . Verizon partners with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to deliver telehealth to vets in rural areas via an app, free of additional phone charges . If  you look at the senior leadership of these organizations, you will find former civil servants among them. Governments have traditionally been on the forefront of hiring and career development programs that focus on diversity and inclusion as well. The private sector has a lot to learn from the public sector in terms of how to build an inclusive workforce.

Some of the most exciting and ambitious sectors of the global economy, such as green energy, artificial intelligence, fintech, healthtech, and space travel, are happening in partnership with the public sector. In the interview with Michael Lewis, Bezos said that his work at Blue Origin, the space company building heavy infrastructure that will unleash a new generation of space entrepreneurs, is the most important work he is doing.

This work will have real consequences. Decisions governments make today about the economy, technology, infrastructure, culture, security, foreign policy, equality and justice, will have an unimaginable impact for decades to come. More than ever, governments need smart, creative, purpose-driven innovators to design and implement frameworks that will transform business and society to meet the unprecedented demands of the twenty-first century. For all of these reasons, we are excited to help drive greater awareness, understanding, capacity, and reimagining of the public sector through Fast Government.