Obama Could Reverse Erosion of Federal Service by Restoring Funding and Reducing Political Appointees

By Paul C. Light
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

As The Washington Post reported this week, President-elect Barack Obama wrote American Federation of Government Employees in October promising that he would do everything in his power to rebuild the federal service. He also promised to protect collective bargaining rights and to restore funding cuts that have eviscerated the federal government's ability to faithfully execute the laws.

The past eight years have been a horror to many federal employees. The Bush administration has rarely missed an opportunity to criticize, cut and meddle, and it dismissed the notion that federal employees need more freedom to innovate and learn. As former vice president Al Gore rightly argued, federal employees are not the problem in poor performance. It is the bureaucracy in which they are trapped.

The Bush administration, however, decided that the best way to reform government was to outsource it. From 2001 to 2005, civilian employment remained at 1.8 million, more or less, while the estimated number of contractor jobs surged from 4.4 million to 7.6 million.

Contractors are now responsible for tasks that include writing requests for proposals, monitoring contract performance and providing management analysis. Contractors are also front and center in disbursing the $700 billion bailout, in no small measure because the Bush administration made no effort to strengthen the government's core capacity to monitor the complicated instruments that caused the financial meltdown.

The impact of the criticism and outsourcing are unmistakable in survey after survey of federal employees. Morale is down, while complaints about the lack of resources are up. Most federal employees rate their middle- and upper-level managers as mediocre at best and not improving. The frustration cuts across every agency. The vast majority of federal employees want to make a difference for their communities and country but report shortages in virtually every resource needed to succeed, not the least of which is enough employees to enforce the laws.

Obama has a chance to reverse the long erosion of the federal service. His campaign letters are a start but must be expanded in three ways.

First, Obama should speak directly to all 1.8 million federal employees about the need for action. George W. Bush mostly ignored the federal service. He made dozens of speeches to uniformed officers involved in the war on terrorism but never asked for sacrifice from federal employees as a whole. Interviewed in 2002, 65 percent of Defense Department civil servants said they felt a new sense of urgency after Sept. 11, 2001, while 35 percent of their colleagues in the domestic departments agreed.

Second, Obama should cut the number of political appointments at the top of government. He has promised to cut middle managers but needs to remember that between a quarter and two-fifths of the stultifying management layers in government are occupied by political appointees, including more than 2,000 that he will appoint without Senate confirmation. There are plenty of career senior executives who could fill these positions. Doing so would signal that bloat is bloat, even at the top of government.

Third, Obama should ask Congress for authority to hire at least 100,000 front-line servants for beleaguered agencies that no longer have enough staff to handle their responsibilities. The Food and Drug Administration needs enough inspectors to intercept counterfeit drugs and tainted produce; the Social Security Administration needs enough representatives to handle the surge in disability claims; the Internal Revenue Service needs enough agents to collect more than $300 billion in delinquent taxes. And they are hardly alone. Name a front-line agency -- such as the Veterans Benefits Administration -- and the shortages are palpable. They need new employees and fast.

Obama could write his speech by merely cribbing from George H.W. Bush, who met with senior executives immediately after his inauguration in 1989. The first president Bush considered himself a product of the federal service, and he made every effort to engage the federal service in his agenda. He took tough stands in favor of civil service reform but never framed his plans as an attack on the bureaucrats in Washington, which is how his son talked about pay for performance.

The sooner Obama calls on the federal service for commitment, the sooner they will respond. At a minimum, he should tell his to-be-named director of presidential personnel to cut the number of lower-level political appointees in half and should add the 100,000 front-line jobs to his stimulus package.

Paul C. Light is a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service and author of "A Government Ill Executed." He is writing an occasional column on the transition for The Washington Post.

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