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Give the young a chance to learn public service - The Eagle: Columnists

Give the young a chance to learn public service

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Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 12:00 am

Young people across the nation are occupying public squares -- some in skinny jeans, some in dreadlocks -- all seeking to amplify their voice in our political order. The scents and sounds of democracy -- patchouli and drum circles -- are pervasive.

I'm not a radical, but I sympathize with the protesters for I, too, am young and want to see things change. I, too, want a stronger say in the way my society is governed. But I don't agree that setting up a lawn chair in downtown Manhattan and tweeting from my iPhone is the way to achieve those ends.

I'm also a member of a movement, one that wants to occupy Washington, D.C. We believe that public service is a noble calling that requires our greatest effort skill, and determination.

In the coming years, thousands of bright and driven young people will graduate from schools of public affairs and each of us is looking for a way to shape how our nation is governed. We're highly skilled and highly educated, we're entrepreneurial and innovative, and we believe that big ideas still have a place in government.

As the economy continues to stagnate, the cries to cut government spending become louder and more desperate. But in our haste to balance budgets, we threaten our nation's ability to cultivate the next generation of public sector leaders.

Less than two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at New York University and proclaimed that the State Department was hiring "a new generation of diplomats."

Fast forward to 2011: Hiring at the State Department has ground to a halt, leaving hundreds of qualified and talented would-be Foreign Service Officers to look elsewhere for employment.

State and local governments across the country are cutting important programs that are essential pathways to developing public servants. To improve government efficiency, you need people who know how government works -- or doesn't. Only experience can provide that.

In the military, you learn the job of the person above you and teach your job to the person below you. This isn't just good training, it's essential to the continuity of the chain of command.

The same is true for the public sector. What if there is no one to teach? What if the next generation of public servants seeks work in the private sector?

The greatest leaders are those who are able to balance realist solutions with visionary goals. Yes, our economic situation is dire. Yes, it requires bold and painful solutions. Yes, America's position is in peril, but not for the reasons many think.

Our nation's greatness is not merely economic, it's also political and it rests, in part, on the ability of government to recruit and retain the best and brightest young people into public service. This cannot be done without providing adequate opportunities for them to enter the workforce and develop professionally.

Dramatic budget cuts are real economic solutions, but they lack the creative, long-term thinking that only vision can provide. We need economic soundness, but we also need adequate structures that allow emerging public servants to succeed and contribute to an effective government.

Seven in 10 Americans believe their government is broken, and it's no surprise that many young people are angry and feel left out. Those of us who view government as a solution to the complex problems of our country and the world want the opportunity to bring our talents to bear.

America's greatness is indeed in trouble, but retrenchment is not the strategy to restore it. We need to invest in the next generation of public sector leaders.

We propose a new stimulus plan and it's simple: Put us to work.

* Travis C. Stalcup is a master's candidate in international affairs at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

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