– Executive Summary –

When you have disciplined people, you do not need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you do not need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you do not need excessive controls.

— Jim Collins[1]

In 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stated its objective to “cultivate the next generation of emergency managers.”[2] Despite that intention, only 10 percent of FEMA’s 2020 workforce were young adults under 30, which is far below the overall share of that age group in the national labor market.[3] FEMA has documented troubles with short-staffing that resulted in mission failures in response to catastrophes like Hurricane Maria and the 2018 Camp Fire.[4] To respond to the nation’s disasters and meet individual and community needs, FEMA needs to build a qualified workforce by attracting talent. Achieving FEMA’s human capital goals requires a commitment to recruiting young adults with strategy and clarity. Teach For America is an example of commitment to quality recruitment and selection that yields positive results.

This research intended to understand the causes of FEMA’s short-staffing and, in particular, why the agency has been unsuccessful in recruiting young adults. Data that might inform those answers were not widely available without issuing data requests or obtaining specific permissions. Thus, the research took a broader approach and used existing literature about the federal government’s recruitment challenges, generally. This study focused on the successful elements, processes, mission, and organizational traits that contributed most directly to Teach For America (TFA)’s success. This thesis evaluated whether, to what extent, and with what modifications the TFA model might apply to the civil service, specifically for disaster relief missions, in an admittedly different context. This study sought to answer the following question: How can FEMA learn from the TFA model to improve its recruitment of qualified young people?

The research revealed that the civil service’s systemic failures undermine both recruitment and public perception, which exacerbates its workforce challenges. The merit system principles create rigid systems for hiring and performance management, which do not yield the best results. Due to the systems’ rigidity, the federal government has documented challenges with inflated performance reviews and unqualified employees.[5] The dysfunction and resulting mission failures undermine public trust in government and reinforce stereotypes about government work. The rigid systems are commonly referred to as “red tape.”

This study also examined TFA, a national service program distinct in its appeal. TFA created a program that enables participants to make a difference by serving a two-year term with additional non-teaching career prospects.[6] Knowing the value of the social connections and cachet, TFA widely markets its alumni network, highlighting its high-profile alumni as leaders in government or prestigious private-sector companies.[7] By increasing access, reducing costs, and offering a robust social network, TFA attracts participation.

TFA built an organizational culture that focuses on measuring results and discipline, thereby creating a set of conditions ripe for successful recruitment.[8] Evaluation and continual data collection inform the internal goals and strategy of the organization. By “setting up systems for accountability and continuous improvement,” TFA refines its processes from public engagement, recruitment, selection, training, development, and performance management. One example is how TFA learned the qualities of its highest performers to recruit more corps members.[9] TFA’s research revealed that its top performers possess common characteristics, which TFA continually measures and adjusts to over time. Performance evaluations create data, which in turn inform the recruitment, selection, and training processes. TFA continuously measures results in every facet of its organization.

Three distinct themes were apparent across both the civil service and TFA. The study concludes with themes that influence public perception and have a direct recruitment link: measuring results, adaptation and modernization, and public engagement. Each theme presents as a successful component of TFA’s model yet a failed system in the civil service. TFA precisely measures results, continuously adapts to young adults’ preferences, and uses aggressive marketing and branding tactics. In contrast, the civil service has superficial performance standards, has not made meaningful updates to its systems since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, and has growing public distrust.

Providing a clear pathway (or several) for young Americans to serve the nation is vital to a functioning public-service sector and the beneficiaries of its programs. As such, job-seekers looking for meaningful work can, and do, seek employment opportunities outside the government sector. Young people especially turn to private and non-profit organizations, like TFA, that offer them the chance to make a difference. This study concludes with recommendations for the civil service to compete in the 21st century to recruit talent and maintain a healthy workforce.

[1] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t (New York: Harper Business, 2001), 13.

[2] Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA Human Capital Strategic Plan (Washington, DC: Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2016), 2.

[3] Office of Personnel Management, FedScope Employment Cube (Washington, DC: Office of Personnel Management, December 2020), https://www.opm.gov/data/index.aspx.

[4] Christopher Currie, 2017 Hurricanes and Wildfires: Initial Observations on the Federal Response and Key Recovery Challenges, GAO-18-472 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2018), https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/694231.pdf.

[5] Robert Goldenkoff, Federal Workforce: Distribution of Performance Ratings across the Federal Government, GAO-16-520R (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2016), https://www.‌gao.gov/assets/680/677016.pdf; Robert Goldenkoff, Federal Workforce: OPM and Agencies Need to Strengthen Efforts to Identify and Close Mission-Critical Skills Gaps, GAO-15-223 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2015), https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-15-223.pdf.

[6] Adam Maier, “Doing Good and Doing Well: Credentialism and Teach For America,” Journal of Teacher Education 63, no. 1 (January 2012): 10, https://doi.org/10.1177/0022487111422071.

[7] “Life as an Alum,” Teach For America, accessed September 19, 2020, https://www.teachforamerica.‌org/life-as-an-alum.

[8] Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Built to Last, influenced Kopp. In his research about great companies, Collins found that successful organizations share a characteristic he calls the “culture of discipline.” Adam Bryant, “Charisma? To Her, It’s Overrated,” New York Times, July 4, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/business/05corner.html; Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap.

[9] Wendy Kopp, One Day, All Children . . . : The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I Learned Along the Way (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008), 176, ProQuest.

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