Government for a New Generation: Q&A with Donald Kettl

Professor Donald Kettl is a world-renowned expert in and professor of public affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School at the University of Texas, Austin. He’s a senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance and the Partnership for Public Service as well as the author of eight books on government, global management, democracy and public policy. Professor Kettl joins Driving Change in a conversation about what the post-Trump era bodes for the future of public service recruitment, which is now a top priority of the Biden Administration. He also offers sage advice to those who seek public sector work, and a perspective on how the public service landscape will shift to address the needs of our rapidly changing world.

Carolyn Whelan/Driving Change (DC): Hi, my name is Carolyn Whelan with Driving Change. I’m with Professor Donald Kettl at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin. He’s the author of bestselling books on the topic of public affairs, and a Senior Fellow at several prominent organizations. Welcome, Don.

Donald Kettl (DK): Thanks. It’s great to be with you today.

DC: At Driving Change, we’re focused on inspiring young people to get into public service. Singapore and France have mastered that, but it’s not necessarily true in the US — although things seem to be changing. We wanted to get your expert opinion on, especially with the new administration, how things might differ going forward.

We’re in a very different era than that of eighteen months ago. The pandemic, immigration, the push for police reform and for fair elections call for strong governments to help solve what you call “wicked problems.” What advice might you give young people who seek a career in public service versus what you might have shared during the last administration? Where do you think the opportunities are? And how might young people pursue them?

DK: We need younger people in government now, more than ever. For example, in public health, finding ways to both frame policy and drive effective results has been enormously challenging. We have issues with data analysis.

Most importantly—this is a special pitch that I would make to younger Americans—most of what is needed is what young people are good at, which is networking, finding ways of managing large quantities of information, being able to weave different kinds of issues together into a single effort to solve problems. That’s very, very hopeful.

We need this now more than ever because large numbers of baby boomers with hairs roughly my color are retiring—and that retirement wave will continue. In the federal government more people are over the age of 60 than under the age of 30. That’s obviously not a good long-term strategy for the government’s health. Younger Americans have a great opportunity to make a difference. It’s truly extraordinary, and the timing could not be better.

We tend to view government work as working for the same old organization, doing the same old stuff in the same old way. But the government now offers some of the most exciting work, anywhere.

DC: What routes would you suggest pursuing to your average young person who studied public administration or public affairs at the undergraduate level?

DK: One thing to consider is an argument that at least half of the people who are graduating from programs right now, and who will be in government in 10 years, will be doing jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. Some believe it’s going to be higher. The important thing to do is to get oneself on the road, where it’s possible to grow and develop, where one can acquire those new skills and have the chance to fly. The ability to engage in that job development. So, it’s getting in the door in an area where you might have some interest. Finding ways of having impact means volunteering for work, reaching out across the boundaries of your organization, and making those kinds of connections.

But it especially means being alert to the fact that the world is changing so incredibly rapidly that the future will belong to the people who find a way to learn how to adapt to it – and quickly learn how to lead that adaptation for the organization as a whole. So having an eye on that broad long-term vision makes it a little bit less important to worry a lot about the functional specialists, the exact job description of the first job, and more about opportunities to find ways to grow and develop along the way.

DC: That’s a very interesting perspective. So joining an organization where there’s a lot of opportunity for growth and guidance and mentorship and skills development.

You’ve commented frequently on the dearth of digital skills in government agencies, particularly those required to strengthen the nation’s cyber security. What sort of technical experience might most agencies value for those most interested in entry- or mid-tier lateral moves from the private sector?

DK: Agencies are increasingly realizing that it’s tremendously important for their staff to have those kinds of skills. But sometimes over my job interviews with graduates, my students, where I’m on one side and the government official is on the other, I sense that the organization thinks it needs ‘something like this’ but is not exactly sure what ‘this’ is. “Can Jane or Jim help us to try to solve that problem?” Many organizations are trying to define exactly what they need.

Research tends to underline this very strongly. The real skills of the future are not in pushing lots of numbers around, but in making sense of what those numbers mean. That sense making piece is incredibly important. Organizations, particularly in the federal government, need more of that. State and local governments do as well.

This is the most important contribution that new workers can make. Because they come in fresh, with keen insights because maybe they come with training that their supervisors did not have, particularly for data analysis. Those who will be most successful are those best at this sense-making part of the job.

DC: That’s a very good point, being able to link all the dots between disparate areas and analyze.

Let’s talk about soft skills like collaboration, communication, stakeholder engagement, and fostering community trust. You’ve mentioned frequently that trust in government has really been eroded. The new administration is trying to build that up.

Today, many projects are outsourced to consultancies or social entrepreneurs, or co-produced with non-governmental, academic or community-led organizations. Against that backdrop, since those working at the local or state level might want to get into regional or national government work, what competencies or expertise might set such candidates apart from their peers?

DK: If they’re working at the state and the local level, they’re probably already working in partnership with the federal government, with nonprofit and for-profit groups.

Work on everything from community development to homeless issues brings, by its very nature, opportunities for coordination and collaboration with people from other organizations. That’s increasingly part of the job description, written or not. With these skills, jobs actually get done. For individuals who seek to grow and to develop, it’s understanding that that’s a big part of the job, that developing that consciously will bring better outcomes.

When asked in an interview ‘What can you do for this organization?’, that is the answer organizations increasingly need to hear. They want to hear that a job candidate has demonstrated value and has the ability to reach out across organizations to work and manage partnerships. That those partnerships produced results. All organizations –  public or private, federal, state or local – put a high premium on that set of skills.

Without strong government, without an effective government strategy, without a commitment to public service, and without the ability to bring people who want to make a difference into government, we won’t be effective as a society.

DC: When you were talking, I was thinking about Andrew Cuomo, how he started at the community development level, then went on to head up HUD, and is now governor. It’s probably a path that folks will increasingly take.

DK: That’s right. Somebody I know was in the Peace Corps, later worked for a nonprofit, and is now in the federal government finding ways to do the kinds of things we talked about.

Someone else I know is responsible for designing the entire system of metrics we see every day to track progress on COVID: The Johns Hopkins monitoring project. That person started in city statistics in Baltimore, moved on to state statistics in Annapolis for the state of Maryland working for then-governor Martin O’Malley, then went onto Johns Hopkins to develop the website, which has had billions of hits.

There is opportunity for those who can look ahead, move and develop. But the key is in constructing those strengths from the very beginning. Building on those skills over time is the way to pave the superhighway to future exciting jobs and opportunities.

DC: The person you mentioned is making a global impact. That must be tremendously gratifying.

DK: This person is a woman, working with a team of women. Some important opportunities are opening up that were previously unavailable for women in leadership.

The team responsible for that Johns Hopkins monitoring project is a multidisciplinary team of people with experience in web design and information technology management, and the substance of public health and vaccinations and inoculations and the way in which the pandemic spread. They worked together effectively as this team. Their effort has transformed how we talk about this issue globally.

The possibility that a new employee could come in working for a performance management project in a particular city and find themselves within a relatively short period of time having a global impact on something that is arguably one of the very most important things facing the universe right now, is just a sign of the ways in which those skills can grow into tremendously exciting, and tremendously impactful, careers.

DC: You bring up a really good point about project management and working on teams. When you were describing the team that was working on this Johns Hopkins site it made me think of a startup environment. Fast turnaround, project management and also procurement. A lot of this very technical work is being outsourced. For folks who are interested in that aspect of work or see that as an entry point into government work, what would you advise them?

DK: First, there is such a thing as a start up in government. We tend to view government work as working for the same old organization, doing the same old stuff, in the same old way. But some government work today is some of the most exciting work, anywhere.

A few examples: performance management projects working on everything from the State Department to places like Veterans Affairs, trying to solve particular problems. There, project and contract management are incredibly important.

The US digital service is the federal government startup of startups. This group has worked hard on some of the toughest problems. The work is incredibly exciting.

Many state, local governments have similar kinds of operations in economic development, in information technology, on some of our deepest social service problems, like programs for the homeless.

They all share a sense of the skills the organization needs. Matching skills with interested organizations creates opportunities in government startups to solve problems. Government always faces big problems, and spending your energy, time and career trying to solve them could not be more exciting.

The real skills of the future are not in pushing lots of numbers around, but in making sense of what those numbers mean.

DC: How do you advise that someone pursue those startup opportunities? It sounds like they’re probably in blended organizations or in discrete parts of a broader organization. Is there any sort of route that you would suggest, other than the obvious networking?

DK: Firstly, these opportunities are broadly scattered. I can almost throw a rock at random at government and find people who work very hard to be imaginative and innovative at solving problems.

I spoke recently to someone, for example, high up in the Transportation Security Administration who said they’re working very hard on making transit through airports easier and less burdensome, while maintaining high levels of security. Their work in terms of technology and person management is incredibly interesting. At nearly all agencies, those opportunities are there.

Beyond networking, finding people who know people who can put you in touch with people who you want to talk to and to discover the  opportunities is important. Where are the startups? Who is doing interesting work? How can I find ways of working for them?

The key to all of this is networking for both contacts and intelligence about an organization. Also, I don’t know of any good, serious, energetic, lively startup that doesn’t have talent management high on its agenda because the people who are in it are excited about their work, and want to grow their team to share that work. So, talent management and recruitment are often very high.

Sometimes these connections are easier to make than they’d normally be using the usual kinds of ways, of applications, and of processes for the usual kinds of jobs. So while we may need to improve the traditional process, the ability to find great places to work and great people to work for is out there, because they’re out there looking for the people who were, in turn, listening to this podcast.

DC: I want to shift a bit to those who aren’t necessarily college educated and would like to get into government at any level. College debt hangs over so many young people. What would you suggest to that cohort?

DK: Again I’d suggest networking, because there are good roads into some of these things. The ability, for example, to work for local fire and police departments. Amazingly, the number of calls they actually get involving a fire is less than 5%. A large part of everything else concerns  making the community safe and responding to accidents. The process of understanding how that works is an opportunity, for leadership as well.

Opportunities include making sure that the water system works, engaging communities, connecting with nonprofits. Those who can do that have insights that don’t always come from sitting in a college classroom. Individuals bring different skills.

There’s something very special about people who come in with an instinct and understanding that the job is connecting with people. People with those instincts, regardless of their level of education, are extraordinarily valuable members of their organizations.

DC: You make me think of how police reform people are talking about defunding the police. But they’re also talking about creating a whole other sort of category of people to respond to emergencies, to de-escalate issues.

DK: First, it’s not always obvious what skills and disciplines are needed when encountering someone who may be homeless or may have some other problems on the streets. It takes a very high level of skill to have the right intuition. Many first responders with whom police work have  that skillset. There are great local opportunities.

It’s also important to recognize – and this applies to people at all levels of education in all parts of society – that some communities have deep and profound problems with policing. But other communities have done a much better job of figuring it out. So there are opportunities to  identify communities in each group to understand the lessons that work, and to make sure those lessons are taught and learned and followed by police departments everywhere.

Part of the challenge is avoiding a knee jerk reaction to the nature of policing. More important is understanding which policing strategies are most likely to be most effective, and how those strategies can be applied more effectively in US police departments everywhere. That’s a tremendous opportunity. By some measure, this is a data analysis issue. It’s a leadership issue. And it’s a matter of finding ways to develop those strategies and communicate them to change organizational culture. Those are all tremendously exciting opportunities.

Defunding the police doesn’t mean taking police departments’ funding away. It means devising new strategies for policing. It is one thing to say ‘That’s what we need to do’. It’s quite another to figure out how to do it, and even more difficult to figure out how to do it well. The real opportunity for those interested in public service—not only in policing—is in a host of issues, from top to bottom.

Imagine the issue of policing and the issue of transportation security, of trying to run Social Security adequately and making sure that people have adequate Medicare, job training, the management of the NASA Space Program. All these opportunities have similar needs for similar skills: the ability to work effectively across boundaries, to advance the mission of the organization.

DC: My father was in the Foreign Service, and went on to work for the Commerce Department and OPIC. So I come from a public service family. My brother worked for the Department of Justice, my younger brother as a high school teacher in an inner-city school in San Francisco. So I very much appreciate what public service brings. My father was of the greatest generation. For him multiple opportunities opened up almost overnight in the 1960s and ‘70s.

With Biden’s Jobs Bill and other federal priorities, could this be a golden moment for public service? I don’t want to put words in your mouth. Obviously, a lot needs to change.

These opportunities have similar needs for similar skills: the ability to work effectively across boundaries, to advance the mission of the organization.

DK: It definitely could be, it should be. It has to be. Because if there’s anything that we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s that on the one hand, government can’t solve all the problems. It’s got to find ways to collaborate across many, many sectors and many organizations to make things happen. But at the same time, without strong government, without an effective government strategy, without a commitment to public service, and without the ability to bring people who want to make a difference into government, we won’t be effective as a society. We’ve come to realize that. The President now wants to promote public service. He’s been engaged in the issue; some very good leaders at high levels are driving this effort. This is an incredibly important moment, because we’ve learned the lessons of what it takes to make this work.

We’ve learned what does work and what doesn’t work in fighting the pandemic. Those are lessons that, as it turns out, don’t just apply to fighting problems of public health, but apply much more broadly to issues in the public service and a wide variety of different areas. By focusing on that, we can apply the lessons we’ve been so painfully taught over the last year.

DC: Couldn’t agree more. There’s certainly a lot to tackle in this world, in this country. So let’s hope that happens.

DK: Absolutely. I’m very excited about the opportunities. One of the most interesting and useful things in life is being able to excite my students about it. I tell them, these are sets of problems, puzzles, policy issues, that we are all puzzling through together. By working together, we’ll get to the finish line.

Excited about a career in public service? Find Professor Don Kettl’s insights and advice here.

Carolyn Whelan

Carolyn is a writer, editor and analyst who covers the nexus between business and social justice issues. She broke into journalism at the Rio Earth Summit where she interviewed Al Gore and environmental pioneer David Brower. Topics covered since then range from climate change and higher education costs to drugs pricing, geopolitical strife, business ethics, artificial intelligence, gene editing, alternative energy and the search for good jobs -- and innovation in all these areas. Her pieces, reported from Europe, the US and South America have appeared in Fortune, Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal and Previously she worked for the Economist Intelligence Unit,, Columbia Business School, WWF, the UN and PwC. Carolyn is fluent in French and Spanish and resides in Brooklyn.

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