JFK’s 1960 Call To Service Could Not be More Relevant Today

In 1961, the youngest person ever to be elected President issued a call for the nation’s best and brightest to join him in government service and lead us to a New Frontier. He challenged those in his generation, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” As the oldest man elected to that same high office, President Joseph Biden has a similar imperative — to attract those most capable and energetic to join him to confront the challenges of our time. This generation’s best and brightest should answer the call.

There can be little doubt that our nation is struggling. Our most immediate concern is getting COVID under control, not only to reduce the physical risk to our people, but also to get the economy back on track. Climate change is an existential threat to life on this planet. Profound issues of social justice, income equality, technological disruption, global competitiveness and others face the new administration and those that follow it.

It is crucial that our government be capable of responding to these challenges. But, since 1980, when Ronald Reagan made attacking government service a political sport, successive administrations have made careers in government increasingly less attractive. Hiring freezes, pay disparity with the private sector, government shutdowns, demeaning language and cynicism about “bureaucrats,” — such has been the arsenal of those who have wanted to devalue and undermine the important work of our public servants.

President Donald Trump escalated the rhetoric by disparaging expertise in government and fomenting distrust by characterizing public servants as the “deep state.” The assault has taken its toll. According to the Brookings Institution, the percentage of those who chose to work in the federal government, as opposed to state and local governments, fell from 75 percent to 25 percent between 2001 and 2017.

But here is the foolishness of this assault: even those who espouse a small federal government should at least want its functions to be done with a high level of skill and effectively. As former Senators Trent Lott and Tom Daschle have said, ‘if the pipeline is not filled with the best and the brightest, then it will be filled with others.”

Government performs functions that are critical to our daily life: protecting our nation from those who would do us harm; regulating the safety of our drugs, food supplies, consumer products, and water; distributing billions of dollars to the states for health care, law enforcement, emergency aid, education and so on. All 332 million of us depend on these governmental functions — and they need to be done competently.

But we have a problem. Only six percent of the federal workforce is under 30 years old, and many of the rest are aging out. By 2023, 30 percent of federal workers will be eligible for retirement. In some agencies, like the Department of the Treasury, EPA and NASA, that eligibility rate is in excess of 40 percent; and in almost no agency is it less than one quarter of the workforce. There is no agency that won’t be touched by a huge brain-drain. The need for our best and brightest could not be clearer.

Public service is a noble profession. It may not pay as well as the private sector, but opportunities abound to make a difference and to be on the cutting-edge of solving problems facing our country. And in that capacity, the potential for personal and professional growth are substantial.

Jimmy Carter was fond of saying that the American people are entitled to a government as good as its people. This is the best time in decades for our best and brightest to answer the call to serve in government. Our nation’s future depends on it.

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Ed is an attorney, specializing in public policy, who worked in government and the private sector. He is a lover of dark chocolate.

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Ed Cohen

Ed Cohen

Ed is an attorney, specializing in public policy, who worked in government and the private sector. He is a lover of dark chocolate.

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