In January I went back to work for the federal government after 10 years in the private sector. I had been a federal employee in the late '60s and early '70s, but huge changes have taken place since then, and I wondered what it would be like to be on the "inside" again.

Most of us who came to Washington in the '60s were inspired by President Kennedy's call to service in his inaugural address. We were in our twenties and viewed public service as an honor. It held out the promise of a challenging career and an opportunity to make a contribution. When I told my friends in Chicago that I was moving to Washington to work for the government, I remember they shared my enthusiasm. It was a career choice that most of them respected and some even envied.

Now young people are not only indifferent to public service, they disdain it. The Michael-Milkin-make-a-million- dollars-by-the-time-you're-30 mentality has put public service on the lowest rung of college graduates' professional aspirations. If the Wall Street junk bond dealers were the mentors for our young people during the past decade, they were abetted by the Reagan and Carter administrations, which took pot shots at the government at every opportunity. Public service was not viewed as a respectable career but as a drain on the tax dollar or the cause of the deficit.

It should have come as no surprise then that almost none of my new colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services were in their twenties, and few were in their thirties. Four positions were filled from the outside when I was hired, and all of the new hires were in their forties.

More alarming than the dearth of young people was the question I was repeatedly asked: "Why did you return to a federal job? You must be crazy." One colleague summed it up when he said, "You appear to have an IQ over 50. Whatever possessed you to return to a government job?"

I viewed these questions less as an inquiry about my motives than as a statement about how poorly my colleagues viewed what they were doing for a living.

After almost a year in my new position, I have been struck by the talent, intelligence and commitment that exists among the 100 people in my office. But I have also been impressed by how demoralized they are.

I have heard some refer to the government as the "Lazy G Ranch," even though most work hard and often more than 40 hours a week.

Another low self-esteem statement in frequent use is "Well, it's close enough for government work," meaning that the job doesn't need to be done well, it just has to be done. This is in contrast to the quality work I have seen produced and the checking and rechecking for accuracy that is usually done. Carelessness and mistakes are not dealt with lightly and can have career-altering consequences.

My friends who work for other government agencies report the same stories -- an aging work force, talented but demoralized workers who feel like they are not making a contribution and a helpless attitude about the future.

And then there is the annual threat of being furloughed, a fancy work for a salary cut -- salaries that already lag far behind the private sector. Each year as the budget crisis worsens, federal employees are marched to the guillotine by the White House and Congress, where they await the blade to fall. While actual furloughs have been infrequent, the threat has a chilling effect on morale and initiative. The result is that federal workers begin to stop caring about what they are doing. No one cares about them or their programs, so what's the use?

Many leave for higher paying jobs in the private sector, and some, who are too old to find jobs on the outside, just count the days until they can retire.

So why did I return to federal service? I returned because I still hear, albeit, faintly, John Kennedy's words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." And I still believe public service can be exciting and that I can make a contribution.

However, if I had been on the "inside" for the past 18 years like many of my colleagues, perhaps Kennedy's inspirational words would have been drowned out long ago by other words like "reduction in force" and "furlough."

Despite the beating federal worker morale has taken, recovery is possible if the politicians would only stand behind the public servants instead of punishing them for the mismanagement of others.

In a speech last year to members of the Senior Executive Service, President Bush said, "There is nothing more fulfilling than to serve your country and your fellow citizens and do it well. I've not known a finer group of people than those that I have worked with in government. Men and women of knowledge, ability and integrity {who} work hard, {who} sacrifice, {who} deserve to the recognized, rewarded and certainly appreciated."

It is time to heed these words.

-- Patty Delaney