Chris Myers Asch, who came up with the idea, says the U.S. Public Service Academy would be just like a military academy, "but without the guns." If you too can imagine such a mind-bending concept--a bull without horns, a sow without teats--then this, as the president says, is your moment; now is your time. The U.S. Public Service Academy has a very good chance of becoming a reality and, soon after, a perfect symbol of our new era.
Asch is a 35-year-old former teacher from Washington, D.C. His idea arrived suddenly a few years ago, when Hurricane Katrina made a hash of pretensions to competence at all levels of government, from the feds on down. Part of the problem, he saw, was that fewer and fewer talented people were going into government work--a point proved beyond all disputation by the Bush administration--and one reason for this was the decline in prestige attached to a life of "public service," as running the government is often called.
The academy is his solution to both problems, the dearth of talent and the lack of prestige. He envisions a federally chartered and federally funded four-year liberal arts college, settled on a campus in Washington, D.C., with room for 5,000 aspiring public servants at a time. They will be chosen proportionally from all 50 states, in a process similar to the one that draws recruits to the military academies. And just like West Point, Annapolis, and that academy the Air Force runs wherever, the USPSA will offer students a strict, comprehensive curriculum, mostly in history, geography, and civics, but leavened with courses in "leadership studies." The federal government will pay for the education. In return, the students agree to five years of employment in a government agency of their choosing after they graduate.
Launching the public service academy will require an act of Congress, followed by the presidential signature, and also a bit more than $200 million a year. The money should be no obstacle, especially if the allocation can be declared economically stimulative and slipped somewhere in between earmarks to weatherize the DMV in Petaluma and to plant endive on the "green roofs" of middle schools in Camden, New Jersey. The only immediate problem is that some of the program's ardent congressional boosters have left Capitol Hill, most prominently Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Of course, they both got promotions, and from their new perches they'll likely have even more influence over how, when, and whether Asch's academy is built.
It was Clinton, in fact, who first brought Asch's dream to the attention of the political world. She endorsed it during the presidential debates in 2007, when the candidates were insisting that each was more uniquely committed to launching a new, unprecedented era of public service than the others. Presidential candidates have been making this commitment to an unprecedented era of public service for the last 50 years, and the USPSA was Clinton's way of doubling down--a kind of "top this" moment. Her staff put the idea into legislative form and she introduced the bill in the Senate, where it rang up an additional 23 sponsors. More than 120 congressmen, including Rahm Emanuel, signed on in the House. Beyond Capitol Hill, Asch has acquired an impressive, if slightly predictable, list of endorsers, including Sandra Day O'Connor, Madeleine Albright, Lee Hamilton, James Leach, Bob Kerrey, and, of course, David Abshire, but not, inexplicably, Colin Powell. Maybe he was sick that day.
Asch hopes Congress funds the academy in a free standing bill, rather than as part of the larger (very large) stimulus package. "We don't want this done on the sly," he says. "We want to draw attention to it. This is a grand and exciting idea, part of a large and exciting movement."
Like so many grand and exciting ideas, this one is meant to solve several problems at once, Swiss-army-knife-style. Fully 90 percent of senior civil servants will be eligible to retire over the next decade. Already, Asch notes, several government agencies are reporting shortages of personnel. The idea that more people should be working for the government is very popular at the moment. The USPSA promises to deliver a freshet of eager young people rigorously pre-trained in "leadership skills."
But their numbers--about 1,300 a year--will be small, especially relative to what Asch says is the urgent need for public leaders and public servants (the terms, oddly enough, are used interchangeably: These servants will be trained to lead). The National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs says there are more than 1,000 programs teaching "leadership" on college campuses, in addition to more than 150 accredited schools of public administration. Most of them think they're already doing what a government-run academy would do.
Not so, boosters say: The academy will be . . . somehow . . . different. For one thing, there's the prestige. The government charter will make a USPSA degree more glamorous than your typical MPA. And students will be part of the larger movement of public service that President Obama is about to unleash upon the country with unprecedented force, like all those presidents before him. The movement will ensure that everyone on campus is on a "shared mission" to lead/serve. American University's Robert Tobias says that this coziness is key.
"The idea that people would be together for four years creating a culture that will support them from there on is what distinguishes this from other universities," Tobias recently told a panel at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's created by people working together on the same kinds of projects with the same goal in mind, and that is public service."
To some ears, this argument in favor of the academy sounds like an argument against it. You can wonder whether the military academy is really a good model for training people whose job, theoretically, will be to respond humbly to popular sensitivities. Not everyone wants a governing class that is not only just as powerful as the one we already have but also more intelligent, knowledgeable, and disciplined, with many more ideas about how to use their power and the skill to execute them. At least the military has civilian control. The graduates of this academy would be the civilian control. The Bismarckian odor is hard to miss.
It would be less troubling if someone would just settle on a definition and tell us what public service is. From overuse it's in danger of becoming a mere cant phrase, just as often a euphemism for power-hunger or busybodyism as for selfless acts of kindness or sacrifice. President Obama himself uses the phrase to cover a vast number of tasks that bear no resemblance to one another, in intent or effect: The gentle soul who ladles soup at a homeless shelter is a public servant, and so is the grunt getting shot at in Iraq, and so is the shark fresh out of law school who takes delight in filing lawsuits against small-time farmers for mishandling manure. All, all are public servants, apparently. And it's not hard to guess which kind of servant the U.S. Public Service Academy will produce.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.