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Gen “Y Not?” – Building the Next Generation of Government

If you’re interested in this topic, please consider attending our Next Generation of Government Summit on July 28-29 in Washington, DC, where emerging leaders and thinkers will convene to chart the future course of government.


In another post, I captured the proceedings of an International Symposium which is discussing “Generation Y and Public Management: Issues and Implications.” I had the chance to speak yesterday afternoon – my remarks, which cover the history of GovLoop and offer 5 tips for managing Gen Y, are below.


It was the summer of 2003. A 24-year old Gen Y named Steve Ressler had just completed his Masters in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing his thesis on terrorist networks. He moved to Washington, DC, for a job with the newly formed US Department of Homeland Security. Both Ressler and his step-sister, Megan Quinn – also Gen Y – were in organizations where there were very few young people. They felt isolated from their peers and were asking the same question:

How can we connect with other Gen Y folks
at the same stage in their careers?

So they did what all young people do: they went to the pub. Seriously, they hosted an informal social event where they and their friends could commiserate with each other, learn how to successfully navigate the bureaucracy and advance in their careers. It went so well that they decided to host a couple more happy hours to keep the momentum going. The big “ah-ha” moment happened during the third event. They sent an email to all of their friends – most of whom were young federal employees, expecting about 20 people to show up. But the email kept on getting forwarded around and eventually 75 people came to the event. At that moment, they realized that there was a clear need for connecting Gen Y public sector professional and an organization called Young Government Leaders was born.

Today, Young Government Leaders, which primarily targets Generation X and Y, boasts roughly 2,000 members with chapters in over 10 cities across the United States. The organization has been featured in numerous publications and hosts several professional development events each year, – in fact, we just finished an hour-long training session this past week in partnership with YGL called “Get That Gov Gig: How To Market Yourself in a Tricky Job Environment” which had over 700 registrants. GovLoop is also teaming up with YGL to host the second annual Next Generation of Government Summit in Washington, DC one month from now. I was pleased to be a Board Member of this organization in 2008 when it was recognized by the Internal Revenue Service with its official legal status as a not-for-profit organization.

In fact, I met Steve in 2008 and that was the reason I became a board member of YGL. In our first meeting, I learned that he was already thinking about new ways to connect with his Gen Y colleagues. By now, he had moved to Tampa, Florida, to follow his significant other / girlfriend and found himself distanced from friends and colleagues in Washington, DC. In addition, the notoriety of founding Young Government Leaders created several speaking opportunities for Ressler at conferences around the world. Being away from all of his friends and making several new contacts at these events, he asked another important question:

How can I stay connected with people despite
being separated by geographic distance?

He also had challenges on the job and found himself wondering:

Am I the only one facing these issues or are there people in
other agencies or at other levels of government who have
successfully solved the problems that I’m encountering?

As with all good questions, he had an answer. He thought, “I should create a ‘Facebook for government.’”

And so he did. GovLoop, a social network for government, was born in May of 2008, launched to his friends in Young Government Leaders and the people that he met in his travels. We’ll talk more about GovLoop in a moment.


Now what else was happening in the United States in 2008? If you said, “Obama,” you’re right. Americans were participating in a historic election season in which a man named Barack Obama was mounting a compelling bid for the White House. And it wasn’t only historic because his father was from Kenya and his mother from Kansas. It wasn’t just because Obama was a gifted orator and a charismatic visionary. While both of those attributes made him unique and powerful in a world that desperately desired “hope,” those weren’t the reasons he won the election. Rather, Barack Obama’s campaign was most stunning for at least two other very important reasons:

  1. He successfully leveraged web-based and mobile technology – from YouTube to Facebook to text message reminders – better than any candidate before him, creating a highly personal, web-driven social network to fuel his grassroots campaign.
  2. He awakened the young people of America, who helped him to connect and communicate with a vast army of advocates, and who turned out in record numbers to cast a vote – many doing so for the first time in their lives.

What did Obama and Ressler have in common? They created a sense of community and connectedness – two very important ingredients for engaging Generation Y, who yearn to belong to something bigger than themselves.


It was in this environment of inspiration and innovation that GovLoop sprang into being.

In referring to a group of 50 Nobel Prize winners that had assembled at the White House in 1962, President John F. Kennedy said “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered…with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” I’d like to think that he’d say that about GovLoop if he were alive today.

Within one year of launch, GovLoop grew from a few hundred early adopters to 10,000 incredibly diverse members. As we just celebrated the 3-year anniversary of GovLoop one month ago, the community is now home to more than 45,000 members and will likely surpass the 50,000 member mark by the end of September.

Please allow me to tell you a bit more about GovLoop: as I’ve said, it’s a social network for government whose mission is to “connect government to improve government.” I’ve also talked about it as a “knowledge network” or as a “perpetual conference” so that people can understand that this is more than social and media – it’s a community of people sharing insight and learning from each other. We bring all of the potential web-based tools into one place: blogs, forums, groups, infographics and interactive guides, online training sessions and live chats with experts, videos, podcasts, a crowdsourcing platform, a data repository and much more to create a powerful online platform for public sector collaboration.

For example, one of the most powerful features of GovLoop is the ability for members to create their own groups. In March 2009, Mary Davie, a high-ranking government leader whose title is Assistant Commissioner, Office of Integrated Technology Services (ITS) at the General Services Administration, launched the Acquisition 2.0 Group that quickly grew to include over 400 highly active members that represented all levels of government, non-profits and private sector organizations. Within two months of the group’s creation, members planned and hosted an event that gathered key thought leaders to extend their online conversation in person.

As word of the group and its goals spread, fresh ideas were floated to Davie, including the creation of a crowd-sourcing website where people could submit, vote and comment on recommendations for improving the US federal acquisition process. In fact, the National Academy for Public Administration (NAPA) was willing to provide some resources to create such a site using an idea generation platform called UserVoice. NAPA had already set up a similar ideation process for the White House.

The result was the Better Buy Project, which was launched in early October 2009. The site has elicited scores of ideas and hundreds of votes and comments.

Because of its diversity, GovLoop breaks down traditional bureaucracy and silos. Members range from the Deputy Chief Technology Officer of Canada to White House political appointees to city managers and brilliant innovators across all levels of government. In fact, it is highly likely that a brand new hire will interact with a senior leader and that someone in human resources will receive an extraordinarily valuable response to a question from a colleague in information technology – innovative answers and interaction that was never before possible at such a significant scale. The open, accelerated flow of information on GovLoop has led to the rapid replication of ideas and best practices across all levels of government, assisting in improved government operations and performance.

One of my favorite stories is of a Federal level employee in Kentucky who was inquiring about geographic information systems. Within 10 minutes, a county employee in Illinois responded with precisely the right information and a link. Sometimes GovLoop members have direct answers that can be shared with a quick click of a link, other times they provide interesting discussion that offers valuable context to an issue. These kinds of interactions happen over 20 times a day on GovLoop.

Let me get a bit more detailed about our members: about 50% of our members are from the US Federal level of government, including the legislative and judicial branches. Another 1/3 work for states, counties or cities. The remaining 10-15% are private contractors, non-profits and people in academia who work alongside government. We also have a sizable international presence with roughly 5% of members coming from countries such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Netherlands, United Kingdom and, yes, even some brave folks from France. People come from every level of government – from the executive level to the administrative assistant – and perform every job function imaginable – from medicine to military to marketing and from acquisition to auditing and aerospace engineering.

Of course, since this is a conference about Generation Y, I am sure you all want to know the age breakdown of our members.

Gen Y = 1980-1993 = 20%
Gen X = 1965-1979 = 40%
Boomers = 1946-1964 = 38%
Veterans = 1917-1945 = 2%

Average Age = 43

So while GovLoop was conceived as a “Facebook for Government” by a Gen Y and initially launched to a group of Young Government Leaders, it has become a much more powerful phenomena. In some ways, we are becoming more like the “Google for Government” as people get quick information on-the-job – and not just from a search engine, but from other people.

So maybe you would like to join them? Please accept my invitation to join GovLoop and to be one of those people that contributes to the community.


So now let me tell you about what we’ve learned about Generation Y in the community:

  • Do they talk about anything unique to their career status? Not really. They discuss all the same issues as their colleagues of other ages.
  • Do they belong to a particular type of group? Yes, there’s a group for the organization Young Government Leaders that has nearly 600 members, but otherwise they’re pretty much mixing and mingling with other members.
  • Do they seek specific types of resources? Yes, we’ve created a New Hire Handbook for people who have started their first government job. We’ve produced helpful online tools like a per diem travel calculator and infographics about interviewing skills. And we just launched a mentor program that is designed to connect them with seasoned public sector leaders to help them advance their careers.

So what makes them different from other generations? What are their unique preferences and how do you manage them effectively?

I’m glad you asked. And you’ll be glad to know that I’ve asked our members! I created a forum last week on GovLoop, posing a simple question: Does Gen Y Require a Different Management Approach? Here are some of the responses – voices from the GovLoop community:

Allison Merkley, a Human Resource Specialist for the US Department of Treasury, said:

As a Gen Y/Millenial and as a recruiter…my advice would be to say yes, generational values can impact how you manage, but it is only part of the solution. If you are looking to manage a broad group this may be a better technique, but if you run a small office spending time with the individual and determining what they respond well to is a better practice. Keep it in mind, but don’t let the stereotype rule your management choices until you know your particular office and staff better.

Kevin Dubs is another Gen Y, who is finishing up an internship with the General Services Administration and is the Director of Career Services for Young Government Leaders. Here’s what he had to say:

I think it’s hard to peg an entire generation to hold the exact same values but some of these ring true for me, other’s don’t. I think technology is the element that is most universal to our generation. Another one that’s not included is our need to have impact in what we do. I sometimes get frustrated with large projects where the final product is a PowerPoint or Study. I’d also add that we like autonomy, but with leadership support.

Alicia Mazzara, one of our GovLoop Fellows, and a member of Gen Y said:

I’ve read that members of Gen Y are more likely to job hop than other generations. In my own experience, I have seen a lot of my friends switch jobs with a fair bit of frequency; I don’t think there is necessarily an expectation of staying in one place and working one’s way up. This seems like a management challenge if you are investing a lot of resources and training into someone who leaves after a year or two.

Well, how did people from the other end of the age spectrum respond? Charles Ray, the U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe (who is 65 and right on the cusp of being a member of the Veteran generation), said:

I’d have to say you have pegged Gen Y very well; at least based on my experiences withe large numbers of them on my staff. It is also true that this has to be taken into account when managing them. Of course, each generation has some unique characteristics that determine which leadership techniques are more effective with them.

Now, what did the Boomers have to say? Well, here are some thoughts from John Bordeaux, an Associate Partner with IBM Global Business Services:

In my experience, these people are individuals – and that matters more than the fact that the latest technology wave amounted to a change in our aquarium water. I’m not going to adopt these age-based hammers and start applying it to my workforce, heck I use Facebook more than my kid. Universal management rules aren’t.

So that’s my advice for your symposium, Andrew. It’s interesting to reflect on the shared experiences for a certain cohort, but that doesn’t mean we turn the telescope around and start USING these reflections to interact with the members of the cohort. Life just isn’t that easy.

Now that’s what GovLoop members think about managing Gen Y. In another forum back in December 2009, I asked “Should government be considered a top employer for Gen Y workers?” Andrew Rushton, a Communication/Outreach Specialist with the US Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, shared this insight:

As a member of Generation Y (mid 80s baby) I can attest that government employment is attracting great interest among pockets of the younger population. I am working towards a graduate degree now in interactive media with the intention of applying these skills towards the government arena where much work remains in utilizing better communication methods to connect government entities to constituents.

Considering all of the talk about the pending retirement boom of government workers, there needs to be more concerted efforts by government agencies to reach out towards the Generation Y crowd. Government jobs have great perks but I don’t believe many young people realize this!

Andrew’s response is confirmed by a report from the Partnership for Public Service. Also, Gen Y really wants work-life balance. According to a report released by the Partnership for Public Service entitled “Great Expectations! What Students Want in an Employer and How Federal Agencies Can Deliver It,” Government offers the main qualities undergraduates seek. A healthy work/life balance is undergraduates’ number one career goal, with 66 percent of students citing this as a priority. Serving the greater good and job stability are the second most desirable traits.”


1 – Help them GROW fast: In a 2006 Council for Excellence in Government survey of Gen Y government employees, 55% of respondents rated “growth potential” as their highest workplace value. What public sector managers need to do is find out the personal and professional goals of Gen Y employees and work with them create a plan and a clear path to its achievement. Put them on special rotational assignments every six months to have a sense that they are moving toward something and gaining a variety of experiences. Challenge them to come up with new ways to streamline processes and to exercise creativity.

2 – Let them KNOW how they’re doing: Gen Y prefers to receive frequent feedback. Unlike the past where people received annual reviews, Gen Y wants to know how they’re doing much more regularly. You might even consider a short, weekly session where you catch up on their project status and give them honest input regarding their performance.

In another forum on GovLoop, a Gen Y gentleman said:

“…as a Gen Y, I can tell you that we look for challenge and opportunity in their work. We are open to feedback and to hearing how we are performing and how we can improve. With no feedback at all, or even untimely or non-meaningful feedback, an employee may adopt a negative assumption, and feel lack of opportunity for growth and development… and end up leaving.”

This doesn’t mean they need to be coddled. I manage a team of four Gen Y employees. I try to give them honest feedback in real time – and every day I try to say “thank you” for a positive contribution or a demonstration of improvement in a key growth area.

3 – Let them GO wherever they need to be productive: Gen Y wants flexibility. They work well with clear instructions and concrete target dates. If you know what you want done by when, why does it matter where and how they complete the task? Give them the freedom to have a flexible work schedule – come in a bit later or leave a bit earlier. Let them work from home or a coffee shop or wherever it is that they are most productive. And this isn’t just allowing them to work from alternative locations…it’s also about letting them go to the Web while at work.

In March 2010, the consulting firm Accenture released the results of a survey of 5,595 employees and students ages 14 to 27 in 13 countries. They learned that 45 percent of Gen Y respondents said they access social media at work, whether prohibited or not, and nearly one-half access online collaborative tools and open source technologies from free public Web sites when those technologies are not available at work or when versions offered at work do not meet expectations.

The survey also found that communication is shifting away from e-mail towards instant alternatives. While older Gen Y (ages 23-27) still spend an average of 6.8 hours per week writing or receiving work-related e-mails, younger Gen Y already in the workforce spend just 4.2 hours per week on e-mail and more time on text messaging via mobile phone (3 hours) or instant messaging (3.2 hours).

And I’ve already mentioned the Partnership for Public Service report in which Gen Y indicated that work-life balance is a top factor in choosing an employer.

Here’s how I like to say this: “If an employee, especially Gen Y, knows what they are supposed to accomplish by when, does the how and where really matter?” Let’s open the doors for Gen Y to get work done. Set deadlines and if they meet them, don’t worry so much about their tactics and the time they clock in and out..

4 – Let them LEARN: In another study by the Partnership for Public Service, Gen Y respondents indicated that they wanted to experience as much training as possible. Now when I say training, what do you think? Let me guess: a traditional classroom like what we’re doing today? Yes, that kind of training will always have value. But I’d also say that learning includes the use of online tools like GovLoop, LinkedIn, Twitter and, yes, even Facebook and YouTube. Most government agencies block these websites, thinking that they are nothing more than distractions. Let’s be honest: sometimes they are. But most often, Gen Y uses these tools like Boomers used the phone and email – they contact their colleagues to get quick information. It’s also part of their stress relief from the pressure of work. Take these tools away from them, and they won’t stick around very long. Moreover, they’ll likely find a way to work around your restrictions anyway, so you might as well establish sound policy (let them write it!) and harness their energy.

5 – Let them EARN advancement faster then previous generations: Historically, career advancement in government has been built upon seniority and time of service. Public sector employees are rewarded for longevity and loyalty. Gen Y does not think that way. They value results over tenure and are sometimes frustrated with the amount of time it takes to work up the career ladder. With their constant use of the internet, they are are accustomed to finding information from a quick Google search. This accelerated timeframe makes them want career advancement much quicker than older generations are accustomed to. So for the high achievers who do show the potential to rise up the ranks quickly, why not let them?


Well, we started this talk back in 2003. Now I’d like you to think ahead to 9 years from now – look to the future with 2020 vision. Where will you be?

I’ll start: In 2020, my son will be 10 years old, likely involved in academic, athletic and musical endeavors. I don’t want to miss a minute of his performances and plan to have a job that is flexible. I hope to continue teleworking so that I have the flexibility to take off in the middle of the day to attend a soccer match or a band program. So I actually like the Gen Y vision for a future work environment – flexibility, fast advancement, short-term, team-based projects and connectivity tools that allow me to be mobile.

So back to you? What will you want? Will you be retired or nearing that milestone….but still seeking opportunities to work part-time from a remote location? Will you want to be tethered to a desk at some office 30 minutes away from your home?

Or do you want to keep working 50 hours or more per week, not counting the commute time? Do you want to get stuck in a position that has no growth potential, just biding your time until something better opens up at another organization?

I think we can learn something from Steve Ressler and Barack Obama – and embody Kennedy’s quote about assembling an “extraordinary collection of individuals.” Let’s create within government a sense of community, collaboration and creativity that is attractive to Gen Y, leveraging online and web-based tools and innovative approaches to management. Let’s help the next generation of government leaders – and each other – to grow and learn more quickly and efficiently than ever before. Let’s mobilize the workforce so that they can work from home and stop polluting our planet in the process. Let’s break down the traditional bureaucracies to build a new kind of government that feels young and fresh and vibrant.

If we don’t make these changes soon, we very well could lose an entire generation of potential public sector managers to pursuits in the private and non-profit sectors, which are offering this kind of compelling vision and real value to Gen Y.

I, for one, think the public sector is the most attractive employment option out there for Gen Y. We’ve got the vision. I look forward to working with you to make it a reality.

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