Robert Gates: Our founding fathers' belief in public service is due a revival

I worry about how difficult it has become to persuade talented and capable young people to enter the public arena. Much of the resistance no doubt stems from the perceived hassles, frustrations and sacrifices of public life. The scepticism is somewhat understandable. Government is, partially by design of the founding fathers, slow, unwieldy, and almost comically inefficient. I have just about seen it all, since first entering government 43 years ago and now having worked for eight presidents.

I would add that being head of CIA lets you in for some interesting public comment. There was the time that "Wanted" posters with my face on them showed up on a university campus. I acquired one, and it is a treasured part of my collection. It's a reminder that a measure of scepticism and irreverence about government officials and organisations is always healthy – indeed, necessary. It curbs overweening power and overweening egos – and in Washington DC there are no shortages of those.

Irreverence informed by healthy scepticism is one thing. But cynicism about the people and institutions that govern and protect our country can be corrosive. Too often, those who chose public service are dismissed as bureaucrats or worse and, in many cases, politicians run for office running down the very government they hope to lead. In the eyes of many successful private citizens, the burdens of public service have grown too onerous. To them public life seems too mean, too ugly, too risky, too dangerous, and too frustrating.

I have a different view, a view informed by my own experience and by what I see every day. Public service remains a necessary and honourable calling and, contrary to the perceptions of many, a fulfilling and satisfying opportunity. If in an unguarded moment you asked the public servants I have known what their motivation was, you'd learn that, no matter how outwardly tough or jaded, they were and are in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists. And optimists. You see, we who have taken this path actually believe we can make a difference, that we can change the lives of others for the better, that we can make a positive difference in the life of our country.

This is an extract from a speech given by the US Secretary of State for Defence to Indiana University on Saturday