Exit interviews with political appointees -- whether Democrats or Republicans, full-termers or short- timers -- typically show they leave Washington with the same two bittersweet impressions of the bureaucracy:
Regardless of background (business, labor, local government or academia) or preconceived notions, most say they have never worked with sharper, more dedicated people than civil servants, who, they often believe, are underpaid.
They wish they could have fired more career bureaucrats without pressure groups making it a federal case, or civil service rules making it mission impossible.
Samples from two administrations:
The first example is a former Carter appointee now in big business. He's a dyed-in- the-wool Democrat who mostly loved his Washington years, including the car phone and White House access. He liked and respected most civil servants. But his last two years (half his term) were absorbed in a failed attempt to fire an employee he considered rude, abrasive, disruptive and worse. He lost.
He still feels that most federal workers are wonderful and should be paid more. But he said his time and effectiveness in government were marred by the firing attempt that, in the corporate world, would have taken about 35 seconds.
More recently a Republican appointee, Terence C. Golden, said much the same. He runs the General Services Administration and also spent time with the Treasury Department. Golden's comments were in response to a request from Paul A. Volcker, whose National Commission on the Public Service is looking for ways to make government service better and more attractive.
Golden wrote the former Federal Reserve Board chairman that federal morale is low because of "several decades of negative campaigns against an inefficient bureaucracy." The federal government needs to improve pay, recruiting and training, he said.
Golden said U.S. workers have performed "admirably" despite denigration from politicians, but said that if it keeps up, the civil service could be destroyed. "It would not be an overstatement to argue that our nation's psyche, and its fate, are dependent on the success of government," he wrote Volcker.
The GSA chief wants both parties to avoid beating the bureaucracy during the campaign and to look for ways to make government better. He also wants to boost public confidence in government by giving managers authority to reward top-notch employees and get rid of incompetents, a process he says is hampered by "extremely cumbersome" civil service rules.
For starters, Golden says, senior officials should be able to remove, for cause, up to 0.5 percent of their employees, subject to peer review, each year. That, he believes, would clean out deadwood and improve the public's perception of the work force.
The mostly kind observations come from a current GOP appointee, but they are an echo of what political appointees have been saying -- usually as they leave -- for the last 30 years. This could mean one of two things: Either federal workers are fiendishly clever at brainwashing a wide variety of politicians, or federal workers are in fact fiendishly clever, and should be treated accordingly.