Time for a Transition, and a Thank You

By Stephen Barr
Friday, June 13, 2008

This is it. My last Federal Diary column.

According to The Post's database, today's column will be No. 2,335. Starting with the first column eight years ago, the goal has been to provide federal employees and retirees with news and information about their pay, benefits and changes affecting their workplace.

Tradition demands that the column continue, and it will. The column first appeared in the pages of The Post in 1932 and quickly developed a loyal following. While perhaps not as entertaining as the comics, the crossword puzzles and the Style Invitational, the column has more than its share of smart and engaged readers -- the dedicated people who make the government run and serve the public interest.

So it is a bittersweet moment to say farewell. My departure comes much earlier than I expected, but it is made possible by a generous, voluntary early retirement package, which about 100 of my Post colleagues are taking. The buyout opens the door for career changes for many of us.

It has not been a step taken lightly. The joy of this column is the opportunity to meet people in the federal community and learn from them. The nation's capital, as the headquarters for the government, attracts people who strive to make a difference, to make life better for their fellow Americans. Getting to know these sincere and creative employees and executives has helped propel this column.

Contrary to popular perceptions, the government is filled with innovation -- at Defense Department labs, at the National Science Foundation, at the Veterans Health Administration and other places. Many federal employees manage budgets and programs that are larger than, and compare favorably to, those in the private sector.

Telling those stories has been a privilege. After all, we've been through a lot together in the past eight years -- the horrific terrorist attack on the Pentagon, the mega-merger known as the Department of Homeland Security and the various efforts to overhaul civil service rules, such as the National Security Personnel System, just to name a few.

In particular, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks profoundly changed everyday relationships in Washington. Security concerns stymie old-fashioned beat reporting; the days of dropping in on a federal building to roam and chat with employees are gone. That sometimes makes it hard to build trust. A tip of the hat to those agencies that let me speak to employee groups and let me attend meetings.

Another big change has been the stepped-up emphasis on performance, driven by the Congress and the White House. As this column has documented, the government remains burdened with poor management systems, problematic technology and too many political appointees who come and go quickly, never earning the respect of the rank and file. Some of these, of course, are longtime laments. Hopefully you'll agree this column has offered a balanced perspective.

My inaugural column, written in May 2000, quoted young people and federal employees who said the government no longer offers challenging and exciting work. Numerous employees pointed to low pay, student loan debt, inadequate training and bonuses, budget cutbacks and management resistance to change as reasons federal agencies stumble when they try to recruit and retain talented employees.

Sound familiar? It's been a recurring theme in the column, and part of the larger debate over how the government is going to manage the transition from the baby boomers to a new generation and what expectations those new employees will have.

But my recent conversation with representatives of Young Government Leaders underscored what some pollsters have found -- that the next generation of public servants are full of integrity, common sense and enthusiasm. They are eager to make a difference. You can learn about them at http://www.younggovernmentleaders.org.

Writing about federal employees requires constant learning, and I thank all of you who called, wrote and spent time educating me about the government. I owe equal thanks to my editors and colleagues at The Post, especially those who offered ideas and suggestions. Eric Yoder, who has been a part-time associate since I began writing the column, deserves special thanks. I would be remiss if I did not stress that the column has always enjoyed strong support from the newspaper's leaders, Don Graham and Bo Jones.

As for me, I'm moving to a new job, as director of media relations for the Legal Services Corporation. It was created by Congress in 1974 for a noble reason -- to provide equal access to justice for those unable to afford adequate civil legal counsel.

The Post's editors will soon select a new writer for the Federal Diary. When the selection is announced, please extend the same gracious greetings that you offered me back in 2000.

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