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The Citizen

Topic / Social Innovation and Philanthropy

Your Government or Nonprofit Job Does Not Mean Public Service

It’s common to hear a disapproving sigh anytime I tell someone I’ll be working in management consulting after HKS. I’m grateful to have a job, especially now during these challenging economic times. Before I accepted the offer, however, I kept asking myself: how could I, as someone who cares about public service, possibly work in management consulting? 

My time at HKS has taught me that many public and nonprofit opportunities do not necessarily entail public service. Instead, public service transcends sectors and is rooted in how we push organizations to reimagine their work and address their societal failures.  

And yes, this includes management consulting.

Those of us graduating from HKS could not have envisioned entering a bleaker job market. Many students have had their job offer rescinded or are struggling to find a job. Dreams of that perfect job marrying passion and impact are now displaced by hopes for any job that helps support family, pay off debts, or simply pays the bills. Work in the public sector or nonprofit sector may not be a possibility. 

We shouldn’t feel guilty about working in the private sector. Public service is more than organizations and titles. If our HKS curriculum instills any lesson, it is that public, private, and nonprofit sectors all have a critical role to play in the advancement of prosperity.

At HKS, we students engage in entirely pointless conversations of what is public service and who are the students “selling out.” Invariably, the ones who are seen to be selling out are management consultants, lambasted by students and professors alike for doing little to improve the world. Somehow management consulting has become the bogey man that represents all ills of the private sector. We as students, however, have created this false icon.

This shifting of blame to the management consulting industry is intellectually lazy. Too often students and professors ignore how startups, technology companies, international development organizations, philanthropy, and the public sector are just as problematic if not worse than management consulting. In the case of management consulting, their problematic work highlighted by HKS students and professors alike all required approval and sign off from another government entity or private sector company. For example, efforts by Senator Cory Booker and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to overhaul education in Newark, New Jersey were supported by McKinsey, but not led by the firm. In this case, Senator Booker chose to use pro bono work provided by McKinsey. Somehow, we’ve moved away from the detail-oriented intellectual inquiry we all committed ourselves to in our applications, and now simply make broad assessments, symptomatic of the current political climate and echo chambers.

We as HKS graduates have a responsibility to seek comprehensive reform. Private sector is not a bastion of public good, and its perverse incentives often inhibit progress. The public and nonprofit sectors, however, are not inherently paths to public service either. Public service is an active and daily practice achievable in both the public and private sectors. We are not holier, and our souls are not saved simply by choosing to work in the public sector over the private after graduation. All sectors need to be remade.

While the private sector has caused or been complicit in many societal problems, the public sector has played just as much of a role. Local government is responsible for exploiting the Black community in Ferguson, Missouri to fill their coffers. The New York City government finally decided to close incarceration facilities on Rikers Island, but is still building new facilities throughout the city’s neighborhood. The IMF and World Bank have wreaked havoc on economies facing debt crises.

HKS creates a divide between the public and private sector, not realizing that we need to fight the same war on multiple fronts. HKS is a unique opportunity for us to explore how we can carry out transformative change that encompasses society broadly. Many of us will likely interact in the future with one another across the public and private sectors as we look to change existing systems. The underlying point then is not about public versus private. The question is whether we can hold ourselves accountable and work together to change both public and private institutions in the name of public service.

The lessons we take from HKS are on addressing the most systemic problems facing our societies, including racism, capitalist greed, government overreach, and climate change. Public service can be working at the IMF to offer more sustainable loans to countries ravaged by COVID-19. It can also be at the Boston Consulting Group educating a partner on why a certain public sector project is harmful for historically marginalized communities. Public service can be at a criminal justice reform nonprofit. And it can also be working as an investment manager to cut profits and divest from companies supporting an unjust incarceration system. What matters most in public service is improving the lives of communities (particularly those most marginalized), rather than focusing on profits and power. The industry or sector is independent from this.

Don’t get me wrong, this letter is not meant to be a defense of the private sector or management consulting. Some of you may read this as some form of cognitive dissonance or an attempt to explain my decision—it’s not. There’s a lot to fix and radically reform, but change will never happen if those dedicated to public service keep their hands clean and refuse to engage. Public service happens in the weeds and trenches. 

Ultimately, we can only remake the world by transforming private, public, and nonprofit sectors. This task demands that we collaborate across disciplines, hold each other accountable, and push one another to do better. We doom ourselves to failure if we think that by simply choosing between the public or private sectors, we are set up to do good in the world. So, as you look for jobs, do not hold yourself to a false idol of service wedded only to a specific industry. Instead, know that whatever role you take on, you have the responsibility and opportunity to transform the world for better.

The Citizen is the independent, official newspaper of the Harvard Kennedy School. Our mission is to seek the full truth on university and community affairs. In doing so, we challenge assumptions and spark meaningful dialogue on the identity and ideals of HKS. We strive to help the school achieve its own goal: allow people to leave safer, freer, and more prosperous lives. 

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