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Why work for a government if you don’t trust it?

We’ve written a number of columns in Governing about the increasing effort being put into recruiting great new employees to the public sector.

This shouldn’t be so hard. Lots of surveys show that young people have a yen for doing meaningful work that helps their communities.

Our most recent Governing column, for example, focused on some of the reasons not-for-profits seem to be hot competitors with the public sector for public-spirited graduates. One cause, that we just touched on, related to a lack of trust in government.

“Without doubt, the anti-government rhetoric at the national level has spilled over to the state and local level,” says Don Kettl,  professor and former dean in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. “There is a broad problem of trust in government and the ability of government to get things done.”

We’ve always been careful to distinguish between government and politics. We have spent the last 25 plus years covering the former, not so much the latter.

Still, the impact of politics is hard to set aside. We recently talked with Shauna Shames, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers.  Her book, “Out of the Running”, was just published in January by New York University Press. Between 2012 and 2014, she surveyed about 800 students in public policy and law school in Massachusetts; she conducted 50 interviews with students as well.  Her research confirmed what others have also found. “There is plenty of data that just the idea of politics is off putting,” she says. “There’s the idea of compromise and the whiff of corruption.”

We asked her whether she thought the perception of politics had oozed over into students’ feelings about government work. She believes it has, describing the “ick factor” as a very real phenomenon that relates to government, not just political campaigns.

She says students are suspicious about the effect of political contributions on government work. They worry about a lack of privacy in government and fear it is tainted by the intense and acrimonious partisanship of recent years and “the meanness and acrimony.” While the students she talked with were most concerned about the federal government, the negative perceptions leaked over into their feelings about state and local government as well.

Government recruiters have a lot of work to do in changing those perceptions.


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