Eight members of the "Emerging Leaders" recruitment program gathered around a conference table recently to share first impressions. They've found big government a far cry from the stereotypes.

These Emerging Leaders, part of a program created by the Department of Health and Human Services, don't feel like they are working in the shadows of paper-pushing bureaucrats. Instead, they have found mentors. They are not tied up in red tape. Instead, they believe the federal government is a place where they can make a difference for the nation.

"I've seen dedicated, motivated employees around the department . . . that are very interested in how their work is directly related to the improvement of American society," said Scott Douglas, a member of the inaugural class of Emerging Leaders.

Kastle Freeman said he has been encouraged to find the Bush administration stressing the importance of effective and efficient operations. "One of the overall themes is that they seem to be trying to foster more accountability, which is good for everyone in the government and the people."

Just as importantly, Ben O'Dell said, the Emerging Leaders program has provided a new way for HHS managers to get their work done. "We're there to help -- another hand that can take care of something that nobody else can, that someone else doesn't have time to do."

HHS recruited its first class of Emerging Leaders about six months ago. More than 8,000 people applied, and 60 were chosen for the two-year internships. The department is gearing up to form its second class, which will have 70 to 75 members.

All in all, it's an ambitious effort. And the hope is that it will provide a model for the rest of the government, because many federal agencies face the risk of "vanishing talent," as the recent report from the National Commission on the Public Service, chaired by Paul A. Volcker, put it. More than half of the government's senior executives will be eligible to retire within five years, the commission said.

A brain drain isn't the government's only worry. It also may have a leadership problem.

In a recent survey of more than 100,000 employees conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, only 36 percent said their agency leaders generated "high levels of motivation and commitment." Only 43 percent said they hold their leaders in high regard. OPM officials said the responses show that the government needs to pay more attention to its leadership corps.

In setting up the Emerging Leaders program, HHS hopes to create a pipeline of talented recruits that can provide a stream of executives and managers in coming years. The program gives participants an overview of HHS and lets them work in career tracks that build off their academic backgrounds and work experience.

Sonya N. Islam and Lisa M. Montney, for example, are on the scientific track. Russell W. Jenkins, Isabel V. Otero, Douglas and O'Dell are on the public health track. Rick MacTurk works in information technology, and Freeman is specializing in administrative issues.

Four came to the program with undergraduate degrees, and four have advanced degrees. Montney, for example, has two master's degrees and a doctorate in neuroscience.

They have been assigned to teams responsible for projects in several areas, including obesity in children, bioterrorism preparedness, privacy issues in the sharing of electronic data with states, and how HHS redirects cost savings.

As part of the Emerging Leaders program, O'Dell has helped establish a health clinic for midwives in Afghanistan, Freeman has worked on the cost-savings project, and Otero has come to appreciate the importance of mentors and executive training seminars.

They have been teased ("Have you emerged yet?" "What are you emerging from?"), and some have done their share of "intern work," such as copying pounds of paper documents.

And they share youthful enthusiasm about their assignments. "This is a way for the department to get a fresh look at intractable problems, and this is a way for us to begin to integrate ourselves into the functions of the department," Douglas said.

Perhaps most important, they are gaining valuable insights into "how things are really done in the government," as Otero put it. "Coming in, you don't really see it, but things are harder and more complex because of the checks and balances."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.