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Insights   January 15, 2024

Inspiring the Next Generation: An Excerpt from Venture Meets Mission

Although the federal government faces some challenges in recruiting the nation’s top college grads, programs like Hacking for Defense are revealing GenZ’s interest in solving the nation’s biggest problems.

Recent research reveals that millennials and Gen Zers are most likely to define themselves and their identities through their professional and educational achievements. But how does this create a barrier for government in orchestrating human capital around mission? While agencies such as NASA and the FBI have always been perceived as “prestigious” government positions, this distinction is waning. And it likely has to do with deteriorating trust in government and growing trust in business. For example, as SpaceX and Blue Origin increasingly penetrate the commercial space market and dominate the low- and far-earth-orbit initiatives of the United States, students too are considering these roles over similar positions at NASA. In addition, Google, Apple, and other technology companies are bolstering their role in U.S. cybersecurity defense, signaling that work similar to that of the government’s is available in the private sector. With the decay of trust in government and growth of private-sector organizations performing various government functions and often providing larger compensation, the perceived achievement of working for the government is fading. And without a perception of public service or mission-driven work as a professional achievement, the generational gap in the government—one in which younger workers are less likely to join the government—will continue to increase.

Bridging the Recruitment Gap
While some areas of the government have proven highly successful in their marketing campaigns, the federal government’s approach to hiring does not consist of large-scale marketing campaigns. Think of contemporary examples such as “The Few, The Proud, The Marines” or historical examples such as NASA’s marketing to students during the space race. In fact, it is rare to see government recruiting on college campuses the way the private-sector tech, finance, and consulting firms recruit. These firms show up with alumni painting their respective employers in the most positive light possible. They make students feel important and wanted, while also highlighting the firm’s culture and values. This social dynamic goes underappreciated by government during recruitment and contributes to the lack of generational enthusiasm. Without these engagements, it is growing difficult for the government to attract private-sector employees and even recruit college graduates. With massive retirements of baby boomers looming and a hollow pool of mid-career candidates remaining in government, there’s an urgent need to replace that talent.

Simply put, we need to make working in government cool again. Even amplifying awareness of existing opportunities would make it easy for prospects to find information in a user-friendly manner. As a standalone website, the USAJOBS site is unlikely to create any generational inspiration. Of course, trust in government has implications for how young Americans make decisions to pursue a professional career in government. The primary trust-building initiatives detailed above should be considered paramount to enabling and orchestrating the Venture Meets Mission ecosystem. By highlighting public service impact, public-sector skill development, and transferability to the private sector, the perception of public service shifts from a resume checklist item to a stepping stone in a lifelong career.

Hacking for Defense: A Solution in Action
Hacking for Defense (H4D) is a university course which is confronting these challenges head-on. H4D was co-created by Steve Blank, an entrepreneur, author, and educator at Stanford University; Joe Felter, founding director of Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation and former deputy assistant secretary of defense; and Pete Newell, a retired U.S. army colonel and former director of the army’s Rapid Equipping Force. The class provides students with the opportunity to work on real-world DoD and Intelligence Community challenges. In this quarter- or semester-long course, students with diverse skills and expertise form into teams and mirror the experience of a startup. These interdisciplinary teams apply “lean” problem-solving methods requiring them to “get out of the building” and interview scores of experts, end-users, and other relevant stakeholders in order to better understand their problems and iteratively develop deployable solutions. The class advances a practical approach to government work as well as applied, experiential education. It was developed and first taught at Stanford University in 2016 and continues to be pedagogically supported through the Gordian Knot Center at Stanford. Students can also introduce their own ideas about DoD/IC problems that need to be solved.

Joe Felter recalls the H4D evolution. “When we developed H4D in 2016, we were unsure whether a course like this would appeal to Stanford students—whether they would want to work with the DoD and help them solve their problems. Encouragingly, students showed up in droves—we had three times the number of applicants that we could accommodate in class. In the first H4D cohort, eight teams worked on priority problems from a range of defense sponsors from Navy Special Warfare Group to the Intelligence Community. The teams all conducted over one hundred interviews in the ten-week class as part of their intense effort to develop solutions. All the teams helped their sponsors better understand the real nature of their problem, and many teams made extraordinary progress in actually solving their chosen problems. Officials from across the DoD and IC were impressed by the results of this new and disruptive class. And this created a positive feedback loop which helped us secure government funding to scale the class beyond Stanford. Hacking for Defense provided students the opportunity to engage in meaningful public service while helping the government tap into a wellspring of talent committed to developing solutions to its most challenging problems. In our end-of-course surveys, nearly every student attested that the course had a significant and positive impact on their views toward those serving in the DoD and broader USG and were inspired to seek ways to serve and contribute to their important missions. It was really amazing—and gratifying—to see this transformation.”

To further advance the mission, course materials are open sourced to other universities—an initiative that has brought this Stanford University class to over fifty colleges and universities through partnership between the Gordian Knot Center and the Common Mission Project, a 501c3 nonprofit. Alex Gallo, a former House Armed Services Committee senior staffer who led the Common Mission Project before becoming Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Public Policy at NobleReach, said, “The H4D experience has spawned similar classes across sectors such as “Hacking for Climate,” “Hacking for Oceans,” “Hacking for Environment,” and “Hacking for Local”—among others—and is now taught in Australia and the United Kingdom with plans to expand further. [They] are working with the Gordian Knot Center at Stanford and other collaborators—like the NobleReach Foundation—to continue to create opportunities for our best and brightest young people to serve and help solve our most pressing problems.” 

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