Waving the public service banner at the Kennedy School

An event during the first week of classes illustrates why it can be a challenge to attract students to work for government, writes blogger Steve Kelman.

The new school term has started at the Kennedy School of Government--a hectic and stressful, but also fun, time almost a little like a presidential inauguration, with lots of good spirit and many new faces.

I am teaching two sections of the introductory management and leadership course for our master’s students. In our first class, we discussed a nonprofit hospital that provides free operations to the rural poor to remove cataracts from patients and prevent them from going blind – a program founded by an inspirational leader in India. Students in both sections overwhelmingly voted that the hospital should not significantly raise its below-market salaries for doctors, believing it would hurt the public-service ethos of the institution.

Meanwhile, our second-year master’s students will be looking for jobs when they graduate in June, and the Kennedy School continues its ongoing battle to convince as many as possible to take jobs in government or nonprofits. (Our previous dean, Joe Nye, frequently said he didn’t want the Kennedy School to be the second-best business school at Harvard University.)

On the second day of classes, the school hosted an evening event in our forum space, called “Ask What You Can Do: Inspiring Public Service.” It featured four Kennedy School grads who now have interesting public-service jobs, with a balanced lineup (something the school must pay attention to) that included a Republican who is former chief of staff to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a general from the U.S. Pacific Command, a CNN journalist and my former colleague Jay Walder (master's in public policy, Class of 1983), who worked as chief financial officer of Transport for London and is now the chief executive of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (subways, busses, commuter rail) in New York City. Beyond events such as this early forum, we are also increasingly tying financial aid to public service commitments, though this still represents a modest portion of our financial aid allocations.

Looking at the bulletin board from our career services office, now renamed the Office of Career Advancement, I saw a poster for the event that illustrated the challenges the school faces in promoting public service. Of the five employers who have already scheduled times for interviews – looking to be the early birds that catch the worms – four were consulting firms (McKinsey, BCG, Bain and Siemens Consulting), and only one was government (the Government Accountability Office). Government tends to come late, make offers late and often pays less. Despite my class votes, even our students are not immune to such natural allures – who would be?

Federal agencies, can you guys help out here? Please give us your comments.