Creating a Nation of Service

Last week, Annie Rorem (MPP ‘13) shared a new vision for a country of people inspired to serve the public good.

For many people, the word “service” evokes the military, at least when used in a government context. But for Annie Rorem (MPP ’13) and the members of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, the term has a much broader definition—“a personal commitment of time, energy, and talent to a mission that contributes to the public good.”

In research that took them across the country, the commissioners found that “the desire of Americans to serve far exceeds their opportunities to do so,” Rorem told an online audience during the latest installment of Batten Expert Chats. Nearly 24 million Americans participate in service each year. “That's a big number, but in a nation of 329 million, imagine what could be accomplished if more people were inspired to serve,” she said. For Rorem, service is not only a commitment to serving the greater good, but also a bold act of leadership that can play an integral role in creating change.

As the commission’s deputy director of research and analysis, Rorem has spent the past three years studying how the federal government can better encourage U.S. citizens to serve their country. Comprising 11 members originally appointed by the Obama administration, the commission has responded to two main charges, Rorem explained. The first is to review the existing process for military selective service, while the second is to increase service participation in three main areas: military (serving in any of the five branches of the armed forces); public (serving in local, tribal, state, or federal government); and national (serving in programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps).

The commission will fold this September, and it recently delivered its final report, which includes 164 recommendations. Given the report’s scope, Rorem shared an online poll with participants to determine which areas intrigued them most. Unsurprisingly for a Batten audience, the most popular topics were public service and civics education.

The latter wasn’t included in the commission’s original mandate, Rorem said, “yet when we traveled the country, we heard from every community that one way to encourage people to serve was to strengthen and enhance civic education.”

Civics is a severely underfunded subject in American schools. On average, the federal government spends about $54 per student on STEM education but only 5 cents per student on civics, Rorem said. Only 1 in 4 fourth-graders tested at a proficient level in the most recent national civics assessment.

“The federal government doesn't have a lot of opportunities to influence curriculum,” Rorem said, “because education priorities are set in communities and at the state level. But the federal government can create incentives for those priorities to shift.” With this in mind, commissioners recommended a fund within the Department of Education that would grant $200 million annually to educational institutions. The funding would support teacher training in civic education and the development of strong civics curricula that would include applied learning.

Since chat participants also expressed interest in the public service facet of the commission’s work, Rorem shared several of the commission’s ideas for increasing public service participation, including a “public service corps” that would resemble ROTC. Built on partnerships with academic institutions, the program would offer students public service training and the opportunity to work in a federal agency after graduation. The commission also suggested a program that would fund the creation of public service academies at colleges and universities. In response to a question as to whether such programs would be available at UVA, Rorem encouraged participants to talk with members of the Batten community about what such initiatives might look like.

Overall, the commission’s suggested approach to inspiring Americans to serve is “integrative,” Rorem said: In their final report, the commissioners recommend that American citizens be exposed to service opportunities “throughout their lifetimes,” starting in elementary school with a “robust civics education,” then continuing throughout their careers and into retirement with increased service opportunities.

“It’s a bold vision,” Rorem said. “But achieving it is not as daunting as it might seem.” She pointed again to the strong desire among Americans to serve, even when the opportunities aren’t available to them. “We’re building on a spirit of service that is alive and well in America,” she said.