What We Can Learn From the History of Public Service

As a government employee, you have probably felt uncertain and a little anxious about what the future holds for the public-sector. It may seem like we are living and working in a time of unprecedented change. However, according to the history of public service, this is not necessarily true.

In order to dispel this myth, Don Kettl, Professor and Former Dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland discussed the history of public service and how it can help guide our future at the Next Generation of Government Training Summit.

Kettl kicked his talk off by explaining that the current uncertainty doesn’t mean that everything in the government is falling apart. “If things seem crazy and like there is a tremendous amount of friction, it is because we tend to fight about things that are important,” he said. “So, when we’re looking down the road of where we are taking the country, it is necessary to remember that we have been here before and this is not the first time we have had a difficult administration transition that is full of friction.”

Previous administrations have had their first months leading the federal government fraught with everything from economic collapse, to terrorism, and involvement in global conflict. Kettl explained that what we need to take away from these tough transitions is the fact that the only way to get through them is with good leadership.

In the current Administration’s transition in particular, he emphasized that this leadership transformation must be able to leverage networking and technology. Fortunately, these are two skills that the incoming generation of government leaders is uniquely capable of.

“Governments are increasingly discovering that they need innovative talent but they often don’t know how,” Kettl explained. “They are realizing that they need to hire people from the younger generation who do know how to get innovative.”

According to Kettl, this new generation of public-sector leaders must focus on managing network operations and leveraging technology and data to sniff out problems before they happen. “Current leaders are struggling to figure out how to do these things but the younger generation is really good at them. So, the government only has one place to turn and that is to all of you,” he told the crowd of public servants.

The challenges that we are facing in the current climate will pale in comparison to where the government is going if innovative leadership fails to step up in the federal government. “We have seen this friction in the past from the conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr to the ugly transitions of presidents who come in and try to turn things inside out,” Kettl said. “And when we ask ourselves what we need to get from where we are now to where we want to be the only answer is that we need you and the unique insights, tools and innovation you can bring to government.”

Looking forward, Kettl emphasized how excited he was to see what the next generation of government leaders can accomplish by marrying networks and technology to drive innovation. He concluded, “We are now in a position where we can decide what story we are going to tell. I truly believe that the story that you all have to tell is much better and more important than you could ever know.”