Efforts to overhaul the intelligence community are underway in the House and Senate, and much of the debate concentrates on coming up with what the 9/11 Commission called new "wiring diagrams" to more effectively link the 15 agencies that make up this part of the government.
From the congressional perspective, fixing structures and systems always seems more doable than delving into workplace cultures and trying to figure out if the right person is in the right job.
As Max Stier, president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, pointed out in recent testimony before a Senate subcommittee: "It is much easier to focus attention on wiring diagrams than people issues, primarily because people issues are much harder. They take more time. They can't be resolved by a stroke of a pen, and they are sometimes issues of judgment and of simply good management."
One of the key people issues facing the government is leadership, an Office of Personnel Management survey suggests. Only 43 percent of the more than 100,000 federal employees responding to the survey said they held their agency leaders "in high regard."
Such views become especially important in agencies -- such as the Department of Homeland Security -- that are revamping pay and personnel rules.
At Homeland Security, only 40 percent of the survey respondents reported that their managers promoted communication among different work groups, only 37 percent said they were satisfied with the information they got from management, and only 47 percent believed that they were given real opportunities to improve their skills.
All three response rates fell below the government-wide averages, according to the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency.
Outside the government, widely held perceptions of it as big, bad bureaucracy deter many new college graduates and mid-career professionals from applying for federal jobs, survey data indicate.
Fifty-six percent of 600 likely voters in a recent poll, sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service, said "too much bureaucracy" kept them from wanting to work in the federal government.
The survey also found that language matters when it comes to the government. When the voters were asked their opinions about "federal government workers," 71 percent gave a favorable response. But when asked about "federal government bureaucrats," only 20 percent responded with a favorable opinion.
Stier, in testifying before the Senate's federal workforce subcommittee, said many talented Americans see the government as a place where "they will get lost and a place where their creativity and individuality will not be able to express itself and a place in which they themselves are not going to be able to make a difference."
"And so, fundamentally, I think that what we see is a collection of misperceptions and also realities that reinforce that view of government, both of which need to be changed," he said.
Stier believes that the government needs to turn people issues into a management priority, where "managers and leaders take ownership of the talent in their organizations," rather than delegating it to personnel offices.
The government also must change the way it thinks of talent, Stier said. Historically, public service has been viewed as a career, but many professionals, especially young professionals, no longer envision spending a lifetime in a federal job, he said.
On average, talented workers see themselves as staying in a job for 31/2 years, Stier said. "We need to see the federal government change the way it thinks about talent so that it becomes viewed as a career builder and not only a career."
More important, Stier said, if federal employees have doubts about the quality of their managers and leaders, as suggested by the OPM survey, then the government should step up efforts to attract and train top-notch managers.
"People generally don't leave jobs; they leave managers," Stier said.
"And that's something that the federal government has truly not focused on, hasn't invested in that management capacity, and that's something that I think would be of enormous benefit and consequence."