A year of national service for young Americans could restore trust in government

This op-ed by CCLP senior fellow Dan Glickman was originally published in the Kansas City Star.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the public’s trust in government reach historic lows.

This lack of connectivity with our political leaders and institutions is acute with today’s millennial generation showing low voter turnout and half of them identifying as politically independent. When government ceases attracting top talent it deepens government inefficiency and public mistrust.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that a cycle of distrust and cynicism is already beginning as members of the next generation dedicate themselves to careers outside government. According to a recent Bipartisan Policy Center report, “Fewer young people are interested in serving as political appointees, and fewer still think of running for elective office.”

Young people are interested in meaningful careers and making a difference but they just don’t see political office as the way to do this. Millennials are also more optimistic about the country’s future than older generations. The question is, how can we get our young, talented future leaders engaged in government service that can create positive outcomes for their fellow citizens?

The first step is to restore a sense of civic duty in ourselves. Our nation needs to rededicate itself to the merit of service to re¬engage the next generation.

Imagine a country where all young Americans completed a year of some type of service. Imagine how this could dramatically alter the pipeline of individuals interested in service and how it could alter perceptions about those who serve.

National service creates an entry point to understanding how society works and it also can help foster active participation in our democracy. Service — military service, AmeriCorps or working in the government — can help fuel cooperation by helping individuals develop a greater sense of empathy for others and exposing them to new experiences and individuals.

I’m currently on the Leadership Council of the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute. The Franklin Project is chaired by General Stan McChrystal and the initiative is working to make a year of national service a cultural expectation, a common opportunity and a civic rite of passage for every young American.

As the Bipartisan Policy Commission report indicates, national service can be an antidote to some of the nation’s most pressing challenges, bridge social and economic divides and limit political polarization. This will require investment from many sources — public, private and nonprofit.

For decades, administrations from both parties have invested in national service. But this year, the House and Senate have approved sequestration¬ level budgets and assigned spending allocations that place our national service programs and the Corporation for National and Community Service at risk. For example, the House is currently considering legislation that would reduce the CNCS budget by nearly $370 million, a devastating 34 percent cut over the previous year.

If one issue could cause members of Congress to cooperate in a bipartisan fashion it is funding for national service programs.

We are going to lose the next generation of political leaders if we don’t find a way for our country to restore confidence and trust here at home. Supporting national service is one way to work to remedy this.

Dan Glickman represented Kansas in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1995 and served as secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 2001. He is currently a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.