By 2025, baby boomers will have left the government’s corner offices to a new generation of leaders who grew up in the digital era. They want to work in a government that, stripped of silos, is nimble, flexible and more connected to citizens.
But what does that government look like? Where will its employees come from? And how can technology help federal agencies fill the gaps left by a shrinking workforce?
As part of Federal News Radio’s special report, The Reverse Retirement Wave, we asked younger federal employees—most under the age of 40—who have proven through their work to be innovators how they’d like the government to change by 2025.
While our interviews are by no means a scientific survey, some common threads emerged from the answers we were given. Whether Gen X, Gen Y or millennial, younger federal employees embrace technology as a way the government can respond more intuitively to Americans’ needs. They point to success stories in local governments, like Montgomery County, Maryland’s 311 service, as models that should inspire the federal government to improve customer service.
“With technology and social media, we’ve taken away the gatekeepers and barriers,” said Corina DuBois, chief of new media in the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. “At local government 311, you can hit a button on your phone and get a pothole fixed. People expect that.”
Younger federal employees also want to work at agencies that embrace diversity in myriad ways. By rethinking the traditional hiring process, agencies could employ people who are now reluctant to take federal jobs. Federal employment would be more attractive and attainable to those who don’t want to leave their current employers, live outside commuting distance or have disabilities that agencies currently fail to accommodate, these younger federal employees said.
David Bray, the chief information officer of the Federal Communications Commission, envisions a day when federal employees no longer are bound to particular agencies, but float from one to another as needed.
“The issues that are really hard right now cut across all departments and agencies,” he said. “We have to think about how we can have change agents that can move across departments and agencies, and really cross-pollinate ideas.”
If that idea seems outlandish today, other proposals seem like they should have occurred long ago.
Jason Olsen, a Labor Department employee who heads Federal Employees with Disabilities, or FEDs, said he’d like to see the federal government become the model employer for people with disabilities, which it set out to be in 1973 with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act.
There are signs that the Office of Personnel Management is trying to address current barriers, such as limitations on disabled employees hired under the special authority known as Schedule A. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is also trying to beef up the 1973 law with accountability measures, Olsen said. But, it’s today’s advocates who make him optimistic that the government can fulfill that 1973 vision.
“The previous generation fought really hard to get access into the buildings. Now that we have that access, this [Americans with Disabilities Act] generation is pushing hard to get good jobs in those buildings, to be mainstreamed and to take that ‘special’ label off of everything. That’s really what we’re looking for from the government and what makes an inclusive employer,” he said.
Read and listen below to learn how six feds, poised to be among the government’s leaders in 10 years, say they’d like the government to change by then. They also nominated present-day programs that give them faith that with a bit more gumption such changes are possible within the next decade.
Make the government more responsive
Nominee: Montgomery County, Maryland 311 service
Federal Employee: Corina DuBois Chief of New Media, Bureau of Consular Affairs
Montgomery County, Maryland’s MC311 customer service center lets residents ask questions and request services from most county departments by phone, Twitter, online and in person.
“The customer only needs to know what they need. They don’t need to know who provides it,” said Leslie Hamm, the center’s director.
The federal government should do the same, says DuBois, who recently called 311 to order new recycling bins.
“We need to keep up with what our citizens are asking for,” she said.
Nominee: National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research
Federal Employee: G. Nagesh Rao Chief Technologist and “Nerd in Residence”
SBA’s Office of Investment and Innovation
Rao sees small-business investment programs as a way for the federal government to find innovative solutions for problems. Some agencies, like NIH, have used such programs for years to help develop technology like the Liftware Stabilizer spoon, an anti-shake spoon for people with hand tremors. Rao would like to see the rest of government adopt the programs and the philosophy behind them.
Nominee: Dustin Laun FCC’s Consumer Help Center
Federal Employee: David Bray Chief Information Officer
Federal Communications Commission
Bray advocates for a day when federal employees can float from agency to agency and when talented outsiders can work as government employees on short-term projects without sacrificing their current jobs. He sees hope in his own agency’s Chairman’s Ambassador Program. Through the program, the FCC convinced Laun, a successful tech entrepreneur, to help it build an online consumer help center. At first Laun worked just one day per week while commuting to Washington from Silicon Valley. As he got more involved in the project, he decided to move to Washington temporarily to devote himself to the work. But he continues to run his own company, MoboTour.com.
Nominee: Team Rubicon Volunteer-based Disaster Relief Organization
Founded/Operated by Military Veterans
Federal Employee: Ben Kohlmann Naval officer
Chairman, Defense Entrepreneurs Foundation
The government needs to find a way to leverage the thousands of Americans who would like to help make the country and the world a better place, said Kohlmann. Many grassroots organizations are positions to bolster government efforts in critical situations. As an example, he pointed to Team Rubicon, whose volunteers (mostly military veterans) helped in the disaster-relief efforts after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and are helping Nepal earthquake victims today.
Make the government more representative of the United States
Nominee: Virtual Internship Program at USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service
Lets student interns continue working for USDA after they return to college.
Federal Employee: Mika Cross Work/Life policy director
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, ACT-IAC and past Causey Award winner
Cross hopes the government of 2025 will embrace telework and other workplace flexibilities that let employees work anywhere at any time. She believes that will help agencies attract and retain a more diverse set of employees, including those who live in rural areas. She is hopeful that the hesitations that some managers have today will fade away within 10 years.
Photos by Emily Kopp (Federal News Radio) except: Liftware Stabilizer (Lift Labs courtesy National Institutes of Health), Ben Kohlmann (Ben Kohlmann), Team Rubicon (Team Rubicon), Mika Cross (Mika Cross), Agriculture Marketing Service Virtual Internship Program (USDA), Jason Olsen (Jason Olsen), Steve Gagnon (Steve Gagnon).