You'll hear it said that this is a "company town." But I'm somewhat astounded that the federal bureaucracy ever manages to hire -- much less retain -- anyone. Even if a person is willing to work in an ugly building for mediocre pay and mediocre benefits, trying to get a job with the feds is an exercise in frustration.

Having worked as a consultant to both private- and public-sector clients and armed with a master's degree in public policy and a longtime interest in government and politics, I wanted to work for a federal agency. Had I known then what I know now, though, I would have been less enthusiastic.

I was informally offered numerous government jobs. At the same time, however, I was often told that hiring outsiders was either nearly impossible or would take months. Government managers could only apologize; their hands were tied.

I decided I could stick it out and wait for my "papers" to be processed, realizing that the job I wanted could evaporate as readily as other informal offers had materialized. But in record time -- roughly eight weeks -- I was given a starting date and reported to work.

I was lucky. After many interviews, frustrated job seekers typically learn that no one with whom they interviewed is the true arbiter of their fate. Only the organization's personnel office, or the even more remote Office of Personnel Management, has authority to hire. And by the time the folks in personnel have complied with procedures, filled out the forms, gotten the requisite signatures, ranked the application and finished their review, many a potential employee has given up and taken another job.

Some job applicants for government jobs work in concert with their potential employers to short-circuit this process, writing job descriptions and modifying their applications to correspond to the descriptions. That is about the only way managers can control who they can hire.

But fiddling with the system doesn't always work. For example, my agency recently had to inform a woman with a terrific resume -- a master's degree in management from an Ivy League school, several years of top-notch experience, etc. -- that she only qualified for a salary of $25,700 a year. According to the evaluation procedure, she did not merit a higher salary, and her skills weren't directly relevant to the job opening. In other words, she had not already done the job for which we hoped to hire her.

Actually, she was on maternity leave and working part-time, so her salary was a fraction of her earning potential. And her skills were highly transferable. Her brains, experience and motivation would have made her the ideal government employee. But we lost her and have lost others because of overly centralized, rigid hiring rules.

Yet instead of streamlining the hiring process or recruiting more actively, government reformers focus on rewriting civil service tests and discussing adjustment of salaries at the highest levels. They don't realize that good employees are not simply embodiments of a checklist. Good hiring decisions are generally situation-specific and are not made by computerized rankings of application forms. Reformers should be focusing on hiring quality people at all levels and on growing some of their own senior managers from within. Attention to the upper echelons of the bureaucracy alone will lead to a car with a steering wheel but no engine.

Despite the low morale of federal employees generally and to the surprise of many of my friends, I am pleased to report that I like my job. I work in a challenging, fast-paced environment and am surrounded by people who are smart, highly motivated and committed to their work. Of course there is bureaucracy -- plenty of it. But I am working on issues of national importance where I feel I can have an impact.

This country is fortunate that smart, talented people are willing to jump through hoops to work for Uncle Sam. But what I and others had to go through to get our jobs is ludicrous. And now, sadly, we're members of a group that is targeted for furloughs, maligned by the press, eyed suspiciously by in-laws and insulted even by the likes of "Ziggy."

Robert D. Muller