CHICAGO – Earlier this month, on a cold, foggy night in the Chicago Loop, students in a public administration class at DePaul University had a conversation about whether they wanted to be public administrators. They wondered, if federal shutdowns and unpredictable governing are the State of Public Service in 2019, maybe they didn't care to become public servants?
They didn't ask what their country could do for them. They asked why they should do for their country.
Angela Tucker's dad works for the Department of Defense; he was paid throughout the latest shutdown, because he was deemed essential. "But I wonder, should I work for a department that might be less likely to be affected by any future shutdowns? Or do I work for a department more aligned with my passions?"
They are graduate students, most in their mid-20s. A handful have already worked for the federal government. But this was not what they signed up for when they considered public service — and there is statistical evidence that all of this wariness is taking a toll on public administration programs nationwide.
The students' textbooks were open to a section on "General Ethical Perspectives," textbooks that never anticipated the perspective that the U.S. federal government might partly close someday and not pay nearly one million public servants for a month, then only weeks later veer toward yet another shutdown. For the almost two dozen students in MPS 594 Ethical Leadership in Public Service, recent history loomed large. So Samantha Loo, their instructor, set aside time to ask her public service students if the lurching trajectory of government had them rethinking the future.
"I mean, even if you're not planning to work for the federal government," she said to them, "how has [the potential for more shutdowns] affected outlooks on public service?"
Luis Gonzales said he works in HR hiring, "and so I think the worry now is those individuals who might be passionate about public service might not, you know, consider work in a place that's just not stable."
In other words, working for the government now is like working anywhere.
James Perry, distinguished professor emeritus at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, said there was a time when a worker entering the government in the '60s "might expect to spend 30 years in a federal job — certainly there are people there now who still have those type of jobs."
Public administration schools report that enrollment is either up or booming; the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy says enrollment doubled in as many years. That said, students at many of these schools are considering nongovernment careers in advocacy groups, nonprofits or consulting firms.
Patrick Hanley, a graduate student at the Harris School, said "I firmly believe in public service, even at the federal level, but it breaks my heart." He interned for the U.S. Senate, the Department of Justice and worked in the office of the city treasurer in Chicago. But "when your [college] debt payments are higher than your rent payments — and I'm a single guy without a family — your priorities are different. In a perfect world I would work directly for the government."
Instead, he's going into private consulting.