What Workers Should Consider When Voting for Their Next Boss

By Stephen Barr
Monday, February 11, 2008

There's one group of voters in tomorrow's Potomac Primary that has a vested interest in the promises being made by the presidential candidates -- government employees and contractors.

They are not only voting for a presidential candidate, they are voting for their next boss.

The government is a huge regional employer, with 336,000 civil service employees, more than 167,400 active-duty military personnel, 38,316 postal workers and thousands more in the intelligence community, the National Guard and the reserves.

They are augmented, as a political and economic force, by more than 272,000 civil service retirees, countless military retirees who have settled here, and thousands of area residents who earn a living through grants and contracts from the government.

James L. Perry, an Indiana University professor, thinks government employees are "in a great position to assess the credibility and vision of a candidate" on issues related to their expertise. "If what a candidate says doesn't make good policy or administrative sense, then the employee should allocate his or her vote to someone else," Perry said.

The presidential candidates have posted their speeches and plans for cleaning up Washington and remaking the government on their campaign Web sites. The number of proposals and the level of detail varies.

Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, for example, say they would clamp down on government contracting. Clinton, in particular, has pledged to eliminate 500,000 contractors over 10 years.

Republican front-runner John McCain would strike "a new bargain" with federal employees that recognizes "public service is a privilege and a responsibility, not a right." He vows to cut government costs and would make it easier to fire federal employees.

His Republican rival Mike Huckabee would shake up the Department of Homeland Security, elevate the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Cabinet and "get rid of the IRS."

Despite the candidates' speeches, debates and policy papers, many government employees probably will cast their votes without a clear sense of how each candidate would engage them.

"None of them has really sent clear signals about what they'd be like as the boss, beyond the broad symbols of their campaign and the tone of their rhetoric," said Donald F. Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania professor who created a Web site, the Next Government ( http://thenextgovernment.com), to track federal management issues in the 2008 campaign.

But there is consensus on what federal employees should look for in a potential president -- an understanding and appreciation of public service and of the people who work in the federal government.

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