Obama Plans Could Shake Up Federal Workforce

By Lois Romano and Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 6, 2008 8:00 AM

If President-elect Barack Obama makes good on his campaign promises, the federal government may be headed for a major shakeup, including the reassignment of many middle-managers, a sharp reduction in the number of outside contracts, and new performance standards for workers.

Obama's governing document, "Blueprint for Change," contains dozens of proposals that, if put into effect, would ripple through the 1.8 million federal workforce and every department and agency. He has also vowed to order a line-by-line review of the federal budget to weed out ineffective programs.

"I am not a Democrat who believes that we can or should defend every government program just because it's there," Obama declared during the campaign.

At the same time, however, the incoming president has promised a much broader domestic agenda of new and expanded federal programs, estimated to cost in excess of a half trillion dollars. Those programs include a costly economic stimulus package, universal health care coverage, and various "green" initiatives.

Like his Democratic predecessors, Obama's interest in reforming the system by eliminating inefficient and redundant programs is rooted in self-interest as well as public interest.

"The Clinton-Gore perspective was that if you wanted to be trusted as a progressive who could effectively handle tax dollars, people had to have confidence that we were aggressively and efficiently getting rid of waste, and squeezing as much as a possible out what we had-- not just taxing and spending," said Ron Klain, who served as Gore's chief of staff during the "ReGo" project.

Reinventing government -- as former vice president Al Gore described the Clinton administration's sweeping National Performance Review -- didn't get much attention this fall in a presidential campaign driven by the crumbling economy. But Obama did promise to make it "cool" again to work for the federal government.

He also praised former president Bill Clinton and Gore for their attempts to downsize the federal bureaucracy, adding that his administration will need to "take it to the next level, because we've still got a 19th century government in a 21st century economy."

Obama intends to make government more efficient by sending "SWAT teams" from the White House into major agencies to improve programs and eliminate waste and inefficiency. He has promised to install a White House chief performance officer to work with federal agencies to set tough performance targets and hold managers accountable.

He promises to save up to $40 billion a year by reducing government contracting, especially no-bid contracts.

Precisely how Obama and his advisers intend to impose these and other reforms is far from clear. Other presidents have attempted to make dramatic changes in the federal workforce, only to encounter resistance from legislators, government employee unions and special interest groups.

A report commissioned by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, concluded that the awarding of non-competitive contracts increased sharply during the Bush Administration.

In fiscal 2003, for example, the administration issued 43,131 contracts worth $107 billion without full and open competition, or 37 percent of all federal procurement spending.

By comparison, the federal government spent $67 billion on non-competitive contracts in the final year of the Clinton administration.

A dominating theme throughout Obama's campaign has been the scorn heaped on lobbyists who were not welcomed in his campaign-- and whose money was also rejected. It appears that theme will continue.

Obama vows to "close the revolving door" between the executive branch and K Street lobbyists, by imposing tight rules governing those who leave powerful government job to capitalize on their access.

No political appointees would be allowed to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employers for two years. And no political appointee would be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration. Currently, senior level staff of both the executive and legislative branches are prohibited from making direct lobbying contacts with former colleagues for one year after leaving public service.

Obama hopes to attract a generation of young public servants whose idealism brings them to government. His plan is to introduce a $3.5 billion national-service program that would expand AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps as well as provide tax credits of up to $4,000 year to help underwrite college educations in exchange for public service.

Obama has talked about reducing middle manager jobs and beefing up the number of employees directly providing services, but Light says the real problem lies in the top-heavy nature of the political appointments, where senior positions far outnumber those in the corporate world.

As part of his pledge to free the executive branch of special-interest influence, Obama has said he would give the Office of Government Ethics, now largely an advisory office, strong enforcement authority.

The Republican Party has always been an advocate for smaller government, but this wasn't the case during the Bush administration. According to a recent study, not only is the number of federal civil servants on the rise, but so are the numbers of employees working for government-funded contractors and for organizations that receive government grants.

Add it all up--and throw in postal workers and the military personnel-- and the federal payroll goes out to 14 million employees.

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