Why Not Government Service?

The commencements are over, and thousands of college graduates are starting their careers in jobs they hope will make use of their four-year preparation. They'll find before them an extremely diverse range of career opportunities.

Except one. Unfortunately, very few will see government service as an option.

It's not "cool" to work in government, at least not in the United States. The director of our career services office says that very few students inquire about opportunities in government. Government can hardly compete these days with the allure of Wall Street, professional and graduate schools, or the fast-action of marketing, advertising, or high-tech companies like Microsoft.

It's not the pay. Government service can provide a good living. It's not job security - every career today carries with it a lack of lifetime job guarantees.

Government careers are in such disrepute because a systemic attitude of mistrust pervades the society in which these young people have been raised. One columnist wrote recently that the most important fact of American public life today is that when John Kennedy was president, 75 percent of Americans trusted their government to do the right thing all or most of the time, while today that number is just below 20 percent.

Such a steep decline reflects enormous cynicism. The problem with accepting this negative attitude as inevitable, however, is that we're a self-governing nation: We are going to have government. Regardless of the position each of us takes in the debate about whether federal or state government is better able to deal with problems, government at some level must deal with the environment, defense, education, public health and safety, and the general conduct of civic life.

So it is cause for alarm that, year after year, so many of the nation's graduates - bright, caring people - overlook or dismiss worthwhile opportunities for government careers. They are precisely the people who should assume positions of prominence and influence in the nation's public life. Their failure to do so impoverishes us. Matthew Arnold, the noted essayist, wrote in 1861 that "Nations are not truly great solely because the individuals composing them are numerous, free, and active; but they are great when these numbers, this freedom, and this activity are employed in the service of an ideal higher than that of the ordinary man...."

That "ideal" is not reached if students do not even consider government service worthwhile. However, government and educators can collaborate: Here are some possible steps:

*Make students aware of the options for government service much earlier. More-extensive internship and externship programs would help. The federal government would need to establish internships and colleges would have to market them to students. Internships at offices of politicians are filled quickly. Internships within specific government departments should be encouraged.

*Dramatically increase efforts to inform students about state and local government, which are perceived as less mysterious and daunting than the federal complex in Washington. School districts and city councils need good people, too.

*The government should recruit graduates more aggressively, using corporate recruiting models. Some US government agencies have sophisticated recruitment strategies, but many don't, and there is very little of this activity at state and local levels.

Can such efforts reduce cynicism about government? If more of the best and brightest go into public life at some point in their careers, the answer could be yes.

* Arthur Rothkopf, president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., is former deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation.

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