John Della Volpe is director of polling for Harvard University's Institute of Politics. For the past 17 years, he has supervised an annual survey of how young Americans view politics and public service. This gives Della Volpe a close look at what 18- to 29-year-olds think of government. Their feelings are mixed.
The 2010 survey shows that young citizens are deeply interested in helping their communities. Seventy percent think community service is an honorable thing to do. This figure rose to 80 percent among students at four-year colleges. "They are digital natives; they want to make an impact in real time," said Della Volpe in March at a conference sponsored by Governing magazine, a sister publication of Government Technology.
But the same young Americans who eagerly volunteer for community service are circumspect of government employment. Just 18 percent agreed that working in politics or government is appealing. That figure inched up to 23 percent among college students.
So it appears that government agencies have some work to do to attract the best and brightest of this emerging work force. "Before we can inspire them to work for us, we need to have a relationship with them. They need to trust you and they need to like you before they go to work for you," Della Volpe told an audience of middle-age senior government managers.
I mention these findings because this issue contains a great example of what can happen when bright members of the so-called Millennial generation join government service. In this issue is the story of Manor, Texas - a city of 5,000 outside of Austin - that recently launched an initiative called Manor Labs to harvest good ideas from citizens and put them into practice. Manor Labs is the brainchild of 23-year-old Dustin Haisler, the town's assistant city manager, CIO and one-man IT department.
Here's how it works: Citizens go to manorlabs.org to submit proposals and vote ideas up or down. Each interaction with the site earns participants points - known as Innobucks - which can be spent on police ride-alongs, meals at local restaurants or other items. The best suggestions are adopted by the city government. Since its launch last October, Manor Labs has collected almost 100 ideas, and five were implemented, including one for retooling the city's work-order system.
"This is stuff we wouldn't have thought of, and that's the important thing. Because when you do innovation internally, you can only come up with so many ideas," Haisler said in an interview at Government Technology's GTC Southwest in Austin earlier this year. "Manor Labs empowers citizens to participate and become involved; it's a new form of community service - online."
Manor Labs offers a glimpse of what the future may hold for government as a younger generation enters public service. And perhaps Haisler's proven ability to make a difference in his community will inspire more of his peers to sign up.