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Widespread Complaints About a Rudderless Government

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By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008; 8:31 PM

When President Obama takes over in January as manager-in-chief of nearly 2 million federal employees, he will need a plan to reinvigorate a frustrated and demoralized workforce, career employees warn.

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In numerous agencies, federal civil servants complain that they have been thwarted for months or even years from doing the government jobs they were hired to do. Federal workers have told presidential transition leaders they feel rudderless, their morale impacted by the Bush administration's opposition to industry regulation, steep budget cuts or the departures many months ago of Bush political appointees. Though they fear publicly identifying themselves, numerous federal workers said in interviews that they are down, but also excited about new leadership.

"Many we talk to are weary, but cautiously optimistic that with this change in administrations they will get to do their job again," said Jeff Ruch, of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "In the environmental agencies we deal with, they weren't allowed to do their jobs because the Bush White House operated on a very centralized basis. The rule was, that which the White House doesn't want to hear shall not be said."

Federal employees said that they are not a passionately partisan group, but some are hopeful about an Obama presidency, assuming that their lot will improve. Several took heart from Obama's campaign trail statements that he wanted to make federal government work "cool again."

John Kamensky, a senior fellow and transition expert at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said that in tracking the Bush administration's recent work and searching for any new initiatives, his center noticed the business of government had slowed to a near crawl over the last year.

"We've been saying that for a year: the administration checked out early," Kamensky said. "I am hearing people [civil servants] are demoralized and waiting for some leadership."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said regulatory agencies have a bias in favor of more regulation, and he suspects workers voicing frustrations with the Bush administration's opposition to excessive regulation are now those clamoring for new leadership. "There's no support in the surveys for a demoralized workforce," he said noting that 58 percent reported being satisfied with their agencies and 68 percent with their jobs overall.

Regulatory agencies -- including the Departments of Interior and Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- have been the hardest hit by morale issues, mainly because of Bush's anti-regulatory posture, workers and union officials said. Hundreds of federally-employed scientists, researchers and agency lawyers have drafted, studied and restudied regulations that went nowhere.

At EPA, a regional staffer who works on wetlands protection said the agency's political appointees have stalled and erected roadblocks on work to clean air, water and soil. Headquarters waited a year to advise staff on how to handle a Supreme Court decision that threw wetlands rules into doubt, then issued vague, "useless" guidance, he said.

"There's been an inability for people to do their jobs and do it well, " said the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous. "The administration's purpose has been to do nothing."

At Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), career scientists were told in 2001 by arriving Bush appointees to stop work on nearly completed regulations to reduce exposure to four well-documented workplace poisons. The new leadership explained that it wanted the office to focus on regulating other workplace hazards, but even then, little progress was made.

"It was discouraging for many employees to sit for so long," said Charles Gordon, a Labor Department career attorney who recently retired after 33 years overseeing OSHA matters. "They felt they weren't fully utilized." One veteran OSHA staffer who asked not to be named said her agency has now worked for 15 years on the same draft regulation, most recently on management-ordered revisions, without completion.

"Even though we can show bodies on the floor from this danger, nothing gets out the door," said the OSHA veteran, who ticked off a list of Ph.D.-carrying colleagues who retired to be more productive elsewhere. Some agencies are also suffering from double-digit percentage cuts in staff and resources, and the strain on federal workers has been noted in several independent reports. The staff of the Small Business Administration, for example, dropped from 2,975 to 2,166 since Bush took office. The volume of federal contracting has nearly doubled during that same period, from $207 billion in 2000 to $400 billion last year, while the number of staff monitoring contracts has declined.

Also, some agencies have gone through much of this year with no leaders in the big window offices. In May, eight months before Bush was to leave the White House, half the administration's top 250 political positions were vacant or filled by temporary appointees.

The jobs left in limbo at that early stage included, to name a few, five of the seven senior Justice Department positions, two deputy secretary jobs at HUD overseeing public housing and community development, and a senior adviser to the Treasury Secretary on economic policy.

Since this is the first election in 50 years in which neither the president nor his vice president ran for office, Kamensky surmised that many appointees may have expected to be replaced and felt no need to await election results.

Frank Buono, a retired National Park Service employee, argued that the administration did a poor job of hiding "a fundamental hostility" toward his agency's job of conserving national parks. Obama's challenge, he said, will be getting the workforce to trust its leadership again.

"The atmosphere in the agencies, even among career people, is pretty negative," he said. "They have been completely browbeaten."

But there are rays of hope, Kamensky noted.


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