If I Were the Boss . . .

Sen. John McCain on contractors, pay issues and recruiting talent.
Sen. John McCain on contractors, pay issues and recruiting talent. (Mary Altaffer - AP)
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By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Like other federal workers not content with their current jobs, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama seek a higher government position with better pay, a bigger office and more responsibility.

A major part of that responsibility is being the boss of the federal workplace and its employees. To get an idea of what kind of boss they would be as president, we asked for their views on a series of issues.

Today we hear from McCain (R-Ariz.), tomorrow Obama (D-Ill.).

Q Federal labor leaders complain that outside contractors perform jobs that should be done by government employees. Do you favor any suspension of contracting out activities?

A "If programs have a good record, and serve a vital national purpose that the private sector can't, they will receive continued funding. But I will not subordinate my commitment to the American people to ensure their tax dollars are spent wisely to the demands of labor leaders looking to swell the ranks of federal government unions.

I will make every aspect of government purchases and performance transparent. Information on every step of contracts and grants will be posted on the Internet in plain and simple English. We're not going to hide anything behind accounting tricks and bureaucratic doubletalk. Nor will I allow other procurement tricks that divert funds from national priorities. I will expand the use of fixed-price contracts to enforce discipline in the procurement process and ensure that clearly defined requirements are fulfilled, realistic schedules are kept, and costs don't exceed the promised price.

Too often, contractors underbid to 'buy into' a market with little expectation of delivering on schedule and within budget. At the same time, the government's cost estimates are often unrealistic. Fixed-price contracts based on realistic cost estimates with clear, consistent requirements will ensure that the contractor pays for cost overruns, not the taxpayers. We must also limit sole-source contracting and make cost discipline a priority using market competition to keep costs down and innovation up."

The Bush administration would like to see "pay for performance" replace the General Schedule pay system for federal workers. If elected, what would you do regarding pay for performance?

"The civil service has strayed from its reformist roots and has mutated into a no-accountability zone, where employment is treated as an entitlement, good performance as an option, and accountability as someone else's problem. Our current system isn't fair to the many good federal workers who do not receive recognition for commitment and excellence and must pick up the slack of those who aren't doing their jobs. We must identify excellence in civil service, reward and reward it appropriately."

The retirement of baby boomers means the government will need to replace many thousand employees in the coming years. What would you do to attract and retain talented federal workers?

"Within the next 10 years, over 40 percent of the federal workforce will likely retire. This is an opportunity to reorganize the entire federal workforce. . . . We can use this opportunity to make sure that government pay scales allow us to attract the finest public servants, equip them with the newest technologies, target replacements judiciously, and change government to make it smaller, less expensive, better skilled, and more dedicated to the national interest.

Employees in the private sector know that if they don't do their job right they will lose their job. Competition and consequences are the driving force of excellence. Taxpayers deserve the same commitment to excellence from their employees. There must be a new bargain with federal employees, one that is worthy of the American people and mindful that public service is a privilege and a responsibility, not a right."

Generally speaking, what is your view of the service provided by federal civil servants?

"There are many thousands of dedicated civil servants that are dedicated to making this nation a better place to live. They are not the cause of the public's disaffection. There are many legitimate reasons , however, why the American public is frustrated with Washington. They see a government that seems to grow and grow without tangible benefits. . . . Federal civil servants provide important and valuable services, but there is no reason why they should not be as accountable for their job performance as workers in the private sector. We owe this reform to the American taxpayers, and to the many civil service employees who serve their nation admirably and with dedication."

If elected, you will be able to name almost 4,000 political appointees, more than a thousand of whom must be confirmed by the Senate. Are there too many political positions and too many that must be confirmed?

"First, I will seek to work with members of both political parties in Congress and hope to end the partisan stalemate that has so frustrated Washington and the American public. Second, our public and private sectors have produced thousands of men and women, some now retired, who have served their country and their community with distinction. I want to recruit some of them for an executive search leadership group to help my administration find the right people for the right executive jobs. . . . The next administration needs to restore Americans' confidence in their government, and I will look for the best talent I can find to do that."

Joe Davidson can be reached atfederaldiary@washpost.com.

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