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Federal Diary Live

Paul Light
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Paul C. Light
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, June 4, 2008; 12:00 PM

It seems almost every federal agency has its share of troubles today. They may stem from politicization, poor leadership, needless bureaucratic layering, staffing cuts, outsourcing, and dwindling interest in federal careers among young people. One of the next president's most important jobs will be to revitalize the government.

Paul C. Light, an expert on public service, joined The Post's Stephen Barr, who writes the Federal Diary column, to discuss what the presidential transition may mean for federal employees on Wednesday, June 4 at noon ET on Federal Diary Live.

The transcript follows.

Light is a professor of public service at New York University and the author of a new book, "A Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It." Before joining New York University, he was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he led the Government Studies Program and founded the Center for Public Service. He also has been the director of the public policy program at the Pew Charitable Trusts and associate dean and professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota. Light has written 18 books, including "Thickening Government" and "The Tides of Reform."

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts

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Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining this discussion, especially our guest today, Paul Light, who knows the ways of Washington and of the government. The newspapers today are filled with reports and analysis of Sen. Barack Obama's victory in the Democratic presidential contest, and I'd like to use that as a peg for my first question. Paul, please tell us what you think we can expect from either an Obama or McCain administration, in terms of federal management issues. Is it automatic that they will scrap the Bush administration's management agenda? Again, thanks for being our guest today!

Paul C. Light: We don't really know yet what McCain or Obama will do -- frankly, government management rarely is mentioned on the campaign trail except in harsh messages about cutting waste, fraud and abuse (which is a recurring McCain theme).

The problem is that neither has managed anything beyond a relatively small Senate staff -- Obama has said on occasion that he does not intend to be the Chief Operating Officer of government, but he hasn't outlined much else (though he did recommend a pretty hierarchical structure for New Orleans relief last summer). McCain has done a little more on government management through the years, including a proposed cut in the number of political appointees. He hasn't mentioned it for eight years now, but he ought to rescue it.

Then there's the issue of campaign management. Obama and his senior staff have been spot-on in their organizing, while McCain stumbled badly last summer. There may be some insights there.

As for the Bush management agenda, say "goodbye." It's history, though pieces may be continued under different names. Can't imagine that the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) will stay, though. It's so subjective.

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Fairfax, Va.: If Barack Obama is elected president, do you think there will be an upswing in younger Americans wanting to work in public service, much like after John F. Kennedy became president?

Paul C. Light: I don't think Obama will stimulate a great surge in student interest. There is some evidence that many students are willing to consider federal careers, but just don't follow through. I think the hiring process and the prospect of 30 years in a career just saps the interest in joining the government. This is very much a seller's market -- some economists estimate that we may have 14 million empty jobs in the coming 10 years. The federal government has to have more than a secure paycheck to attract the Millennials. It's the work, the chance to acquire new skills, and the immediate impact that young people want (no matter how naive that might be). They're very impatient for results. The more the federal government emphasizes pay and benefits, the less interested many students are -- they can get bigger paychecks from the private section (including contractors), and more meaningful work from nonprofits perhaps.

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West Bethesda, Md.: In Tuesday's column, "Past the Time for Tinkering on Public Service," you state "Light also proposes to cut the number of political appointees by half." For many of us who work for the Department of Defense, we would like to see a similar proposal for limiting the number of uniformed military in management positions. While most of these people are smart and well-meaning, they frequently come into a position of authority without much background and understanding of their organization. As they then tend to rotate to a new position every two or three years, they rarely are held accountable for bad decisions that come to fruition after their watch. This is a continual frustration for career civil service employees who do have to live with the repercussions of these bad decisions and frequently have to clean up the messes.

Stephen Barr: Paul, just to add a related note here. Many Diary readers who work in the Defense Department have expressed concern that their military supervisors will lose interest in the National Security Personnel System over time because of the policy of regular rotations for officers, etc.

Paul C. Light: I agree completely. We ought to make sure that our managers/leaders have the skills to do their jobs. It's not just a rotation. Managing a federal unit is just not the same as managing a platoon or battalion. It can be just another checkmark on a long list of badges. One reason these officers tire of the new personnel system is that it's hard to learn and requires a great deal of interest to administer fairly (that's the same for managers, too; we must invest in managerial training for this to work, and we must be very patient). Maybe a bumper-sticker like "It's Not Just a Rotation Anymore" would remind officers that this is a big deal.

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Stephen Barr: I cannot resist asking you to elaborate on the PART. While many congressional aides see it as subjective or "political," doesn't the PART represent a good step forward in trying to sort out federal programs and put some light on those in need of a budgetary or staffing rescue? Or is the PART simply too high-level to ever be able to drill down to provide useful information? Thanks, Paul.

Paul C. Light: This is where the good can be the enemy of the perfect. A lot of observers question the validity of the scoring system. It seems to vary greatly from budget analyst to analyst. Why was the Consumer Product Safety Commission ranked so highly this year, for example? I do think that measuring performance/results is essential, but we have to be consistent and agree on just how we are doing it. I think the next administration will need to take another look at the issue. For the most part (no pun intended), I like the annual performance reports, which go much deeper, but even here we can't be sure of consistency. Congress needs to be included in the discussion, too. There may well be a new chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee next year -- Lieberman is likely to be driven out of the Democratic caucus. So perhaps that's where we can restart the process so that it actually matters on the Hill.

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Washington: The increasing number of political appointees into the top (and lower and lower) levels of the U.S. federal agencies simply is getting worse with each new administration. Their interference with the work of the career civil service is all too common. What practical steps are there to take in starting to reverse this ongoing (and adverse) process?

Paul C. Light: Cut 'em back to size. McCain actually supported legislation during the 1990s to reduce the number by 3,000. I support a 50 percent cut, and a limit on the number of "at-will" appointees who surround the Senate-confirmed appointees. Moreover, one could go even further by suggesting that no "at-will" appointees can be appointed until their Senate-confirmed boss arrives. And we should consider a methodology for restricting the number of layers political appointees occupy. I'm hoping that McCain and Obama will work on this issue in the next few months -- but it is a very tough issue when candidates start thinking about giving up the patronage.

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Atlanta: I am a 28-year-old female who began her career with the federal government eight years ago right out of college. Do you think that it is a bad idea to jump ship to the private industry for higher pay, better benefits and a shorter commute? Many of my colleagues my age are beginning to inquire and accept positions outside of the government because of pay, overall incentives froom private companies and closer commutes to home while avoiding downtown city traffic.

Paul C. Light: I think many younger feds worry about getting locked into a 30-year career and jump quickly. Quit rates among new recruits appear -- and I emphasize appear -- to be rising somewhat. I think the federal government has to realize that new recruits will want to come and go, which means more opportunity at the middle levels. Why should the federal government do the training for the private sector? Let the private sector do some training and invite former feds back in -- with credit for their past service, perhaps?

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Laurel, Md.: Fifty years ago, a college graduate considering a federal career would have seen exiting projects like civil rights, space exploration and building the interstate highway system on which to base a career. With government facing decades of elderly security program costs, what would a young worker today see facing them?

Paul C. Light: The federal agenda has been growing, albeit at a slower pace in recent years, and is still pretty exciting. But a lot of the work involves maintaining past achievement rather than launching new initiatives. We've been in such a cut-down mode that potential recruits wonder whether they'll get a chance to participate in something big. In that regard, Obama seems the more inspiration candidate. Who knows where we'll get the money, though, especially if the Bush tax cuts are extended.

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Washington: I was surprised that you did not mention the current congressional initiative to found and develop a U.S. Public Service Academy, modeled on the military service institutions that successfully have fostered professionalism in our country's defense forces. Isn't the provision of equivalent training for public service a worthy undertaking, in light of obvious needs?

Stephen Barr: Paul, I assume this Diary reader is faulting my summary of your new book, but the question is interesting, so please share your views on the pros and cons of a Public Service Academy as a way to bring talented young people into the federal service.

Paul C. Light: I like the idea of a public service academy, though it is a very expensive proposition (imagine starting a new 5,000-student university from scratch). It easily could be appended to one of the military academies, however, thereby solving the problem of recruiting a top-flight faculty, etc. I just don't see it as a big threat to the current schools of public administration and public service. We've got plenty of room for both.

I didn't endorse it in my book, however, largely because I've focused more on how to retain talent and renew the federal career. I worry that coercion is not a very helpful tool for filling jobs -- requiring five years of service in return for an academy appointment merely may delay the day when these new recruits jump ship.

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Stephen Barr: Paul, in addition to cutting by half the number of political appointees, your book includes a recommendation to provide federal funds to the political parties for pre-election transition planning. I imagine that transition plans are held tightly by most candidates. What led you to make this recommendation?

Paul C. Light: I worked on this idea way back when. It actually passed the Senate and died in the House when Jack Brooks (D-Texas) decided it would be a waste of money to give planning money to two campaigns when only one might win. Of course that logic just doesn't hold when you look at federal campaign financing -- both parties will get about $15 million in federal funding for their conventions. I just think we need to remind the public that campaigns are about governing, not vice versa, and make it okay to do pre-election planning. Legitimize it. It might be a waste, but at least candidates would be able to say that it's an important task. They'ar e already doing it, though who knows where -- maybe in the Cheney bunker?

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Arlington, Va.: In Steve's column, you apparently are asking what programs should be dumped and which should be kept by the government. Your thoughts?

Paul C. Light: Well, we have a penchant for continuing to pursue failed programs. But as an earlier questioner asked, how do we know what is failure or success? My main point is that we should fund the missions and provide the capabilities needed to succeed, or dump the program. It's an extreme way of saying "give us the resources or get off our backs."

When I say capabilities, by the way, I refer to the basic "stuff" that we need to deliver the mission -- good leadership, decent support, intense commitment, rewards for a job done well and discipline/retraining for a job done poorly. What I mean is that federal employees are plenty smart, but they often are hamstrung by the lack of support.

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Burke, Va.: Can we expect to see any changes in federal agencies' hiring of federal IT workers (versus their contracting-out of IT work to private-sector contractors and vendor organizations) in the metropolitan Washington area during an upcoming McCain presidential administration? How about during an upcoming Obama presidential administration?

Paul C. Light: I'm not sure what we're going to do about IT. We've got to have the talent to oversee the work, integrate the contract. We've outsourced almost all aspects of IT and are recognizing that we have become overly dependent on contractors to do it all. It may be that we need an IT Service Corps to stimulate higher pay, etc. But once we go that route, we rightly would be under pressure to create an Acquisition Service Corps, etc. Something's got to give. Is it high pay? More responsibility for integration? Not sure.

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Washington: Given that we are looking to a new White House, what does your research show should be of utmost concern to the new president, regarding the civil service/government?

Paul C. Light: I'm particularly concerned about three things that need to be done right away.

First, cut the number of appointees. It takes too long to get them into office, they turn over too quickly, and there's just too much meddling (read the recent story about interference with NASA's global warming report). There's just no need for so many appointees. I'm often criticized for making too much of so few appointees (just 3,000, more or less, in a federal workforce of 1.8 million) but it's not the number but the layering that matters most. These appointees really stuff the senior hierarchy and have too much opportunity for mischief.

Second, we've got to deal with the layering of the bureaucracy. Get more resources down into the hierarchy and junk some of the unnecessary layers. I know that we created many of the layers for good reason, but we also created many during pay freezes and to help the baby boomers like me advance. The cost is clear in the front-line delays. Some argue that I'm an apologist for federal unions on this, but we see the delays all the time -- and the dangers of using contractors to open tax returns and handle passports.

Third, we've got to get control of our contractors. They are often free from any oversight. there has been case after case of this. The downsizing of the acquisition workforce is a serious problem. The recent report that the number of acquisition workers is rising is fine -- but a little overdone if I may say so. However, the number of acquisition officers is still well below its 1990 mark. Meanwhile the number of large, bundled contracts has increased dramatically.

I haven't heard word one from the candidates on this -- although Clinton did talk about downsizing the contract workforce.

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FEMA Person: I wanted to ask a couple of questions, if I may. First, are there agencies that a new president might be encouraged to tinker with, such as the Department of Homeland Security with its consistently bad press and low morale, or HUD, which has let the housing crisis pass by without much response.

The second is in regard to hiring. Congress in the Post-Katrina Act mandated that everyone in FEMA get a clear career path with necessary training, something that we had been looking forward to. (The mandate, however has yet to be implemented by management.) In your discussion of Millennials, are you suggesting that established career paths might actually turn off younger people looking at federal jobs?

Paul C. Light: First question: I wouldn't tinker with DHS, but break it down. FEMA needs to be on its own, as does the Coast Guard. The department is still a mess -- these mergers take time of course, as Energy shows, but time is not what we have. It needs to get back to a single mission, which is homeland security. It's spending too much time on immigration and other issues.

As for HUD, all ideas are welcome.

Second question: I think that rebuilding career paths is essential to retention. Millennials have so many options for the future and have been taught not to trust any employer. But some will stay for 30 years and others will leave, and still others will leave and come back. We shouldn't think of one career path per se, I guess, but several. And make the invitation to return visible. The Partnership for Public Service has done some nice work on middle-level hiring. Why train all these younger feds and just let them go? Send them off with a standing invitation to return with credits for their service.

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Washington: The Bush administration likes the 9-to-5, business-type model of work. What do you recommend for the next administration?

Paul C. Light: Let federal employees do their jobs and get the mission done. If that means overtime, so be it. There's no excuse for sending employees home when so many agencies are backlogged.

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Arlington, Va.: I think I am on the opposite side of what you describe, as far as the attractiveness of the federal government. I am 35, and worked for 13 years in the nonprofit sector. I enjoyed my work, and the flexibility of the organizations I worked for, but after a certain point the flatness of nonprofits meant I couldn't rise any further, career-wise. It doesn't feel good to be "maxed out" when you're 30!

So I went back to get my Master of Public Administration (part-time, while working) and decided to start looking for a job in the government. My dad was a 30-plus year fed retiree, and my husband works for the government too, and for the most part enjoys his work. What I wanted was challenging work, career advancement, and a better sense of job security (always lacking as an administrator in a nonprofit, especially as the economy slows).

I found this through the Federal Career Intern Program. (I encourage young people to check out this program, and the opportunities that exist at various agencies.) I'm now in a two-year training and development program, targeting a Management Analyst position in a small executive agency, and I am happier careerwise than I've been since I was 25.

Yes, there are rules and regulations galore in the government, but the nonprofits I worked at often suffered because of a lack of policy/standard operating procedures, and I often felt that I constantly was "reinventing the wheel."

It's actually an exciting time to be in the government, I feel, with retirements coming more rapidly and senior staff looking to do some knowledge transfer to younger employees...

Just my two cents on my new foray into the federal government!

Paul C. Light: Thanks for the comment. Welcome back! Public service comes in many shapes and sizes today, of course, and you're quite right about nonprofits -- they can be just as bureaucratic as any organizations, and the smaller ones have very little room for advancement. I like to say that the nonprofit sector has a first-class workforce but often operates with third-class organizations. But there is something that called you to the nonprofit sector right out of college, I'd guess: It was the chance to make a difference. Now that you're older, you have decided that you can make a difference in government, too. More power to you. All government agencies are not alike either, which is why my writing is sometimes (some might say often-times) overgeneralized.

I'm a slender reed on which to hang this, but I'm proud of you and wish you every good thing.

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Washington: It's a pity more young people aren't aware of the interesting types of jobs the federal government can offer. I work as a lawyer at Treasury and assist in creating the regulations for the deferred comp/pension law for the United States. It's like being in law school full time. Very interesting work. However, the pay is not great compared to what can be earned in the private sector. Many of us here are working moms who want some flexibility, people who opted out of the high pressure firms, or academia types. Nevertheless, we all feel we do something important. I agree, however, that streamlining the hiring process would help greatly.

Paul C. Light: There are some great examples of agencies that really have shortened the hiring process. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission apparently has got the days down below 30, for example (they'll have to correct me if I'm wrong). And others have worked it. Better advertising, too. But you still need a lot of information to find a job that fits -- not a Ph.D, but pretty good sleuthing skills. And you need patience.

The problem comes on the day when you start. It's like that old Maytag commercial -- new recruits can feel pretty lonely right off the starting block and sometimes feel that their agencies can't honor the promise of interesting, meaningful work. I'm glad you found it. Good luck.

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Stephen Barr: Well, Paul, we've run out of time today. Thank you for taking the time to answer questions from Federal Diary readers and share your views on the upcoming presidential transition. If any Diary readers are interested in purchasing "A Government Ill Executed," where should they look? Again, thank you for joining us today.

Paul C. Light: Thanks for asking -- I'm tempted to say you can find the book on remainder tables all across America, but it's still selling nicely. The best place to go is Harvard University Press. Amazon.com is listing it as out of stock, but they just got a shipment. So that's an option, too.

It's always my pleasure to join you in these chats. You've done more for public service in the past few years than anyone I know. You ought to get a Service to America Medal and ask for it in gold.

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Stephen Barr: Paul, I'm not sure that I'm gold-medal material, but like you I hold the public service in high regard and really have enjoyed these discussions and feedback from readers in the past eight years. As many of you know, I'm leaving the Federal Diary column in mid-June to chart new career options for myself. It has been a honor to report news and other information about the federal community. The Post will continue the column after my departure, but this is my last discussion, and I will miss the give-and-take with Post readers. Please stick with washingtonpost.com and keep an eye out for the next installment of Federal Diary Live and related features!

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