Reorganizing Government Around Talent

In the 2015 Washington Monthly College Guide, Jamie Merisotis, the president and CEO of Lumina Foundation for Education, has a feature article on the urgent need for a new cabinet-level department of the federal government that he calls the “Department of Talent.”

But this wouldn’t be simply a new cabinet position. It’s responsibilities would encompass and replace the responsibilities of pre-existing departments.

What should be included in this new Department of Talent? Avoiding the wonkish issues of congressional committee jurisdiction (turf is a real impediment to change) and agency capacity, I’d propose three main entities as a starting point:

· the current functions of the Department of
Education in their entirety;

· the Employment and Training Administration
(ETA) of the Department of Labor; and

· the talent recruitment functions of the Citizen-
ship and Immigration Service (USCIS) under
the Department of Homeland Security.

In effect, the goal is to rationalize and streamline the federal government’s goal of creating a workforce to meet the demands and requirements of a new economy. For example, it’s a worthy goal to get low-income people access to a college education through the Pell Grant program, but we want to make sure that, first, they actually graduate, and second that they gain marketable skills. Currently, these goals are divided between the Department of Labor and the Department of Education, and the result is that neither does a particularly good job of achieving the overall goal.

Here’s what Merisotis envisions as a replacement:

The Department of Talent would create the possibility of several important outcomes. One is greater efficiency and focus. Think about an agency that could develop and implement strategies for high-quality, locally managed workforce development programs, and highly focused global recruitment strategies for meeting the nation’s workforce gaps. Ideally, there would be a coordinated approach that seamlessly relates K-12 standards to learning outcomes frameworks for education and training beyond high school.

Greater efficiency also ties to the issue of effectiveness—the actual success of the programs and strategies being managed by the agency. The Department of Talent would tie together approaches that have been disconnected, and bureaucratically entrenched, and replace them with ones focused on outcomes. The net result would be an agency actually aimed at the true outcome of the policies inherent in the current disconnected mess—talent—rather than an agency that is focused on processes and tools like “education,” “training,” “visas,” and so on.

This may seem like a final capitulation to the idea that our education system should be strictly utilitarian, and that the end goal of higher learning should be to feed the workforce needs of the country. But, let’s remember that the topic of discussion isn’t some abstract debate about the true, noble purpose of getting an education. The topic is what the proper role of the federal government should be in this process and how it should organize itself to fulfill that role.

On that question, Merisotis has opened an interesting debate. We’re already investing tremendous amounts of money getting people into college where they can hopefully gain the skills to be upwardly mobile. That does seem to be the primary idea beyond these investments, so what’s wrong with being honest about it and organizing around it?

In any case, Merisotis has opened a worthwhile debate. You should read the whole thing.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.