Conflicting Views of the Civil Service

Sen. Barack Obama's campaign expressed concerns about contracting out government work.
Sen. Barack Obama's campaign expressed concerns about contracting out government work. (Joe Raedle - Getty Images)
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Thursday, August 21, 2008; Page D04

If there's one thing Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama agree on, it's that the federal government generates lots of frustration.

That's almost the only point the presidential candidates had in common in separate comments the Federal Diary printed yesterday and Tuesday.

It's apparent from those comments that Obama (D-Ill.) has a more positive view of the federal civil service than McCain (R-Ariz.) does.

Sure, McCain gave a nod to the "many thousands of dedicated civil servants that are dedicated to making this nation a better place to live . . . who serve their nation admirably and with dedication."

But when discussing "pay for performance," the Bush administration's alternative to the General Schedule pay system, an alternative that many federal employees distrust, McCain says the civil service "has mutated into a no-accountability zone, where employment is treated as an entitlement, good performance as an option, and accountability as someone else's problem."

Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University, characterized McCain's comment as "generally positive rhetoric tinged with the old Reagan attacks on lazy feds. . . . McCain's comments are standard fed-bashing."

The Obama campaign was not clear on his view of pay for performance, but it did make a strong case for federal workers when the subject turned to contracting out government work to private companies.

"Obama is concerned by the rising number of government contractors that are often unaccountable and frequently less efficient than government workers," said the statement from his office. He also promised to "reduce our nation's increasing dependence on private contractors in sensitive or inherently governmental functions" and "eliminate the Bush administration's ideological bias towards outsourcing of government services."

Contrast that with McCain, who blamed union opposition to contracting out on "labor leaders looking to swell the ranks of federal government unions."

With talk like that, it's no wonder the major federal unions have endorsed Obama.

The candidates' differences on moving government work to the private sector was key for Robert M. Tobias, director of Public Sector Executive Education at American University. "Obama cast it as a strategic decision," Tobias said, "whereas McCain has the assumption that the private sector would do things better. I don't think that's true."

One area in which neither candidate had much to say was on the transition from the current administration to the next. McCain didn't bother to answer the question, and the Obama statement was so vague that it verged on the meaningless.

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