Obama Urged to Revitalize a Frustrated Federal Workforce

In his first television interview since his historic election, President-elect Barack Obama said he has spent the days since the election doing 'whatever it takes' to stabilize the economy. Video by AP
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

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.

In numerous federal agencies, civil servants complain that they have been thwarted for months or even years from doing the jobs for which they were hired. Federal workers have told leaders of the presidential transition team that they feel rudderless, their morale affected by the Bush administration's opposition to industry regulation, by steep budget cuts or by the departures many months ago of Bush political appointees in high-level positions. Although 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 wary but cautiously optimistic that with this change in administrations they will get to do their job again," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit 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 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 statements on the campaign trail 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 that the business of government had slowed to a near crawl over the past year.

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

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that regulatory agencies have a bias in favor of more regulation, and that he suspects workers voicing frustrations with the Bush administration's opposition to excessive regulation are those clamoring for new leadership. "There's no support in the surveys for a demoralized workforce," he said, citing a 2006 government-wide survey on workplace satisfaction by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in which 58 percent reported being satisfied with their agencies and 68 percent with their jobs overall.

Regulatory agencies -- including the Interior and Labor departments, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- have been hit the hardest by morale issues, mainly because of Bush's anti-regulatory posture, workers and union officials said. Hundreds of federally employed scientists, researchers and agency attorneys 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 erected roadblocks and stalled on work to clean air, water and soil. He said the headquarters waited a year to advise staff members on how to handle a Supreme Court decision that threw wetlands rules into doubt, then issued vague, "useless" guidance.

"There's been an inability for people to do their jobs and do it well," said the staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The administration's purpose has been to do nothing."

At Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 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 wanted the office to focus on other workplace poisons, but even those efforts dragged on for years.

"It was discouraging for many employees to sit for so long," said Charles Gordon, a recently retired Labor Department career attorney who oversaw OSHA matters for three decades. "They felt they weren't fully utilized."

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