Joe Davidson's Federal Diary

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tough times have claimed one of Washington's good-government groups, but its voice will continue to be heard.

The 25-year-old Council for Excellence in Government is going out of business and sending its major programs, and most of the staff, to the Partnership for Public Service.

"As the economy has gotten more severe, the Council has struggled with increasing operating expenses," interim president Lynn Jennings said. "Our board felt very strongly that with this transfer of programs we would be able to increase our impact."

The Partnership will take over the Excellence in Government Fellows, Strategic Advisors to Government Executives and Public Service Recognition Week programs starting Monday. Of the Council's 20 employees, 16 will move to the Partnership.

The recession has hit all segments of society and those that work to make government better certainly are not exempt. Today's "economic climate has made it extremely difficult to raise the funding required to continue and grow these vital programs," John Macomber, chairman of the Council's Board of Trustees, said in a statement.

But the Partnership is a growth organization with solid financial footing, says Jonathan D. Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, another good-government group. "The Partnership is so solidly run and so solidly established now," he said. "It's a lot easier to run these programs when you're not worried" about raising money.

The Partnership is a youngster. It was founded in 2001 with $45 million from Samuel J. Heyman, a former Justice Department lawyer who is chairman of GAF, a Wayne, N.J., specialty chemicals company that also manufactures residential roofing products. Heyman is chairman of the Partnership's board.

Washington's world of good-government groups does not suffer from the partisan battles of Capitol Hill or cut-throat reputation associated with Wall Street mergers and acquisitions. Good-government types can be tough on Uncle Sam's shortcomings, but they are gentle with each other. Each has carved out a role, while working well together and supporting programs of others.

Although it has its own niche, the Council's programs are a good fit for the Partnership. Both organizations focus on people -- current and potential government employees. Excellence in Government Fellows, the Council's flagship operation, is a leadership training program for mid-career federal managers. Strategic Advisors to Government Executives provides mentors to public sector managers. Public Service Recognition Week honors public sector employees.

Recognition Week dovetails nicely with the Partnership's Service to America Medals, which highlights the work of federal workers. The Partnership also encourages people to consider federal careers. It publishes a ranking of the "Best Places to Work" in the federal government, and no agency wants to be at the bottom of that list.

One high-profile Council project, the Prune Book, which lists the toughest jobs in government, still is looking for a home. The Brookings Institution is one candidate.

While the Council's financial situation is the driving force in this consolidation, Max Stier, the Partnership's president, says other nonprofit organizations should consider merging, more to increase strength than to save money.

"By and large the nonprofit world is one of fragmented efforts," he said. Consolidating those efforts will increase effectiveness and efficiency, he added.

Words of Caution

It's hard to find someone in Washington who is happier than John Gage now that President Obama is in charge. Yet while Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, had strong praise for Obama yesterday at the union's legislative conference, he also had these words of caution:

"Pay will always be an issue no matter who is in power. And it will be an issue of potential danger so long as our economy is in crisis and so long as the deficit grows larger. Let's never forget that it was Franklin Roosevelt -- the greatest president the labor movement has ever had -- who imposed a 15 percent cut in government employees' pay at the height of the Depression. The risks to our members on this issue were amplified [with] President Obama's decision to freeze the pay of higher-income White House employees. When a president is asking for sacrifice by the nation as a whole, there will always be the temptation to make an example of government employees."

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