Amid government shutdown, commission wants to make public service popular again

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In the midst of a government shutdown that’s 34 days long and counting, there may be a bright spot in the darkness.

Young Americans are interested in service. That’s what the Commission on Military, National and Public Service found after a year of town hall meetings in nine Census districts, including 15 states and 24 cities, with members of the public.

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Americans’ interest in service isn’t universal, and it might not be popular.

Four in 10 Americans say they’ve considered military service, according to the commission. Roughly 71 percent of Americans ages 17-24 don’t meet the qualification requirements to serve in the military.

And while millennials make up 35 percent of the private sector workforce, they comprise just 17 percent of the federal workforce.

But for the commission, these numbers are low because most Americans simply don’t know about all the opportunities they have to serve.

Congress tasked an 11-member Commission on Military, National and Public Service back in 2015 to find ways to encourage more Americans to serve their country. The group released its interim report on Wednesday, which described the commission’s goals to increase awareness, expand opportunities and encourage participation in service.

Currently, there are too many barriers to enter national institutions like the military, community non-profits and government, the commission said.

Today’s government shutdown — the longest in U.S. history — is one of those barriers. The commission acknowledged that, and it recognized the 800,000 federal employees currently impacted by the current situation.

“We know it’s not an easy time, and we want you know that we are discussing the impact that these kinds of developments have not just on you but on the Americans that you serve,” Joe Heck, the commission’s chairman, said Wednesday at the group’s interim report release in Washington. “We know that there are individuals who, with a great desire to serve their country, feel their contributions are not appreciated. There are others for whom political developments, such as the shutdown, are just another barrier making it harder for them to serve or discourage others from considering a career in public service.”

Setting the government shutdown aside, there are other barriers to federal public service, the commission said. Many of the challenges will be familiar to most in the federal community.

Throughout those discussions, the commission heard a reoccurring theme from the public: the federal hiring process is too long and cumbersome.

“USAJOBs.gov takes far too many clicks for today’s millennials to navigate in order to be able to get to a job position,” Heck told reporters Wednesday morning. “In addition, the process just to get brought on when it stretches six-to-eight months is far too long for a millennial who’s looking for a job today. They’re discouraged by not just the process of trying to get the job but working through the wickets in order to be able to report for work. They get a better offer somewhere else and then they totally leave the thought of coming to federal service.”

Federal agencies and the military also need to do a better job of picking up the applicants that may not be eligible for military service or the Peace Corps, for example, and finding other opportunities where they can serve.

“We’re turning away literally thousands of Americans who are raising their hands, demonstrating their interest to make a difference in some of the most desperate places on the planet,” said Mark Gearan, the commission’s vice chair for national and public service. “The same is the case for other services. The good news is more and more millennials and younger Americans want to serve.”

Gearan, who now serves as the director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, previously led the Peace Corps during the Clinton administration. The Peace Corps even at the time turned away thousands of applicants, Gearnan said. He advocated for a pipeline that transitions applicants who are turned away from one service program to apply to another.

In addition, the commission is considering a variety of other recommendations to improve the pipeline of young people to jobs in the federal sector. Those suggestions include:

  • Establish a Public Service Corps program, like the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, that offers scholarships and specialized classes to college students in exchange for their commitment to work in federal government,
  • Offer a new, optional federal benefits package that gives employees more flexibility to advance their careers,
  • Set up a civilian reserve program for federal cybersecurity employees, who can be called on in times of specific need.

The interim report doesn’t describe too many concrete or detailed policy ideas but gives a glimpse of the direction the commission is headed. Eventually, the commission will develop specific recommendations on changing or abolishing the Selective Service, for example. It will, as Heck said Wednesday, weigh in on whether women should be eligible for the draft.

But as the group’s interim report suggests, service means many things to many people, and the commission wants to suggest a concrete, recommended path for both Congress and the executive branch to build out a multi-faceted approach to military, national and public service for the next generation.

“We [want] to provide the kind of access that young Americans would really think at some point, that they would not be the outlier if they did some kind of service,” Gearan said. “That’s the aspiration that we have.”

The commission’s final report is due to the President and Congress by March 2020.

The group will hold several public hearings in 2019. The first one, which the commission will host in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 21, will tackle the concept of “universal service.” The commission has other public hearings on the selective service and military and public service scheduled in Washington in April and May. Find more information about the commission’s planned public hearings here.

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