As one of very few columnists in the mass media who is willing to posit and attempt to answer the Really Big Questions, Gillian Tett has accordingly had her brilliant work discussed in this very blog on a number of occasions. In one of her more recent FT Weekend articles – Let’s get geeks into government (4th April 2014) – Tett tackles the issue of the chasm in attractiveness to stellar students (particularly, though not exclusively technology and/or finance students) between a dynamic, lucrative private sector and a decidedly uninspiring and comparatively staid public one. Many state bureaucracies are in dire need of genuinely visionary talents who are technologically literate, but it is exactly this type of person who is likely to find life in such a work environment a postmodern re-creation of something penned by Dante Alighieri; as more entrepreneurial personalities continue to opt for life in Silicon Valley or one of its wannabes, civil services around the world will suffer ever- more deeply by odious comparison.
Tett's solution to this paradox is an interesting one: (i) for tech business icons to actively talk about the value of public service; and (ii) for giant 'new economy' corporations such as Facebook to encourage their employees to take some kind of gap year within a public service entity. As fine as these ideas are, we can't help feeling that these may be of limited value: expecting the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world to spontaneously riff on the joys of working in a distinctly uncool tax office, or seconding some of their most talented prospects to an urban planning department, could be somewhat hopeful.
After some contemplation, we at Mediolana have three alternative solutions for making public service sexy to elite graduates:
1. Branding. In many countries – not least the US and UK, nations which Tett writes about with great insight – local authorities, which count for a massive percentage of civil servants, tend to be rather anonymous things. It is entirely possible for someone to grow up in, say, London without much more than the vaguest idea of what municipality they happen to live in, let alone the people responsible for local decision-making. However, in some other countries, smaller administrative units are anything but anonymous. In Japan, even subdivisions of cities have their own manga characters, while in Turkey it is impossible not to know exactly in which part of an urban area you are in: everything from park benches to litter bins are loudly labelled with the relevant municipality's logo and/or name. Better branding could go a long way towards making these entities recognisable as entities which serve particular purposes.
2. Incentives. Following on from point 1, civil service organisations are often horrible at selling themselves; targeting the best and brightest graduates is a task that many do not even seem to have a concrete strategy for. However, given the monstrously high tuition fees now being levied in the Atlantic Anglosphere, something as simple as a few scholarships for outstanding students – tied, naturally, to a compulsory stint mirroring the duration of the degree in a corresponding public service job – could prove to be a relatively cheap way of ensuring that at least some elite students end up working away from the private sector.
3. Quality + Competition. Ultimately, one of the biggest barriers to entering public service is that the sector does not have the best qualitative reputation: it is popularly known as a place where those who do not particularly want to work go to get a job. This stereotype is more than a little unfair, but when even relatively competence government agencies are routinely failing to do the simplest things well – such as returning telephone calls – then it is unsurprising that this impression is perpetuated. The solution is clear: there must be a quality revolution in public service, and the sector must embrace international competition. Municipalities and government agencies should be ranked across every relevant metric and compared with each other. World Cups in everything from bus shelters to property taxes apps must be prepared for. Obsessing at being the best will reap dividends for public service agencies worldwide – and help naturally attract the most some of the most talented graduates back onto the state payroll.