Government Career Field

Government Careers Background

Government CareersGeorge Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and our nation’s other founders had an amazing amount of foresight in the structuring of the United States government. Politicians’ attitudes, beliefs, and sensibilities have changed, but through it all, the structure of the U.S. government has endured. This endurance is no small feat when you consider the many forces that might have torn the country apart: women fought for decades for the right to vote; slavery was alternately supported and condemned by the Congress; the Vietnam War, a century after the Civil War, killed tens of thousands and provoked protest and violence in cities across the nation; and the fiercely contested presidential election between Al Gore and George Bush in 2000. The United States continues to be affected by the consequences of these and other historic events, however. Elected officials are still actively involved in passing legislation that provides protection, studies, and services in efforts to improve race relations, end gender inequality, make reparations to veterans of war, and ensure that election law is followed and the rights of voters are preserved. The failings and strengths of the U.S. government, the desire to change things for the better, and the capacity of the government to allow for this change lure people to careers in state capitals, city halls, and Washington, D.C. There are career politicians who devote their entire working lives to government jobs, but the government also offers careers to teachers, journalists, business executives, farmers, and anyone interested in affecting the way Americans relate to each other and to the world.

Many of the concerns of America’s first citizens and government leaders remain relevant today. Diplomatic relations were important in even the earliest days of the development of the United States as ambassadors went to the leaders of other countries to encourage support of American independence. Today’s satellite communications and Internet technologies allow Foreign Service officers and ambassadors to keep in constant contact with the Department of State in Washington, D.C., but the diplomats of the late 1700s would spend years on foreign soil, cut off almost entirely from their home government. In some cases, these diplomats would even return having accomplished little in the way of foreign support.

In the early 1800s, westward expansion resulted in the development of many major cities. Between 1815 and 1850, a new western state joined the Union every two and a half years on average. The 1850s saw the Gold Rush in California and a desire to take risks on new business ventures. The early architects of developing cities were as dedicated to their mission as today’s city managers and urban planners are to preserving and expanding those cities.

An interest in chronicling the concerns of U.S. citizens and the actions of government went hand-in-hand with the development of a political system. Ben Franklin, in addition to his efforts for the new government, also published one of the colonies’ first newspapers. As early as 1735, laws and court decisions supported freedom of the press: Publisher John Peter Zenger of New York was acquitted in a libel trial when it was found he had printed the truth about the royally appointed governor. Newspapers and politics again became closely linked as the Revolutionary War neared, and writers used the press to either gather support or opposition against war. The press became a regular forum for the debates of political parties and also helped to spread political awareness. Although it may seem that it was contemporary politicians who, with their spin doctors and TV ad campaigns, first used the media to affect elections, it’s actually a tradition as old as the political parties themselves: Postrevolutionary newspapers served as the battleground for the Federalists and Republicans, the first political factions to emerge in the new country.

The Foreign Service, the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, the political science departments of colleges and universities, and the media all attract thousands of professionals every year who are anxious to be involved in, or to comment upon, the decisions that affect the people of the country.

Although elected and appointed officials change, the structure of the government strengthens and remains resilient—although it may be restructured occasionally to better deal with business or cultural changes or to respond to domestic or international crises.

At no time in our recent history has our government been challenged more than after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In response to the attacks, the Bush administration restructured many existing government agencies and created new agencies to improve security at U.S. borders, in U.S. airports, in dealing with travelers throughout the United States, and in making the entire country safer from chemical, biological, or technological attacks or other potential threats. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002 to address these issues. It employs 180,000 workers in one of four major directorates: Border and Transportation Security, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Science and Technology, and Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection. Many major government agencies—such as the U.S. Customs Service, Transportation Security Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Computer Incident Response Center, Secret Service, and Coast Guard, were merged into this new agency.

Overall, the federal government employed approximately 1.9 million civilian workers in 2004. Fewer than one out of six worked in the Washington, DC-area, and about 93,000 worked overseas. Approximately 7.9 million people were employed by state and local governments (excluding education and hospitals) in 2004. Seventy percent of this total were employed by local government.