A Renaissance for Government Work

By Mark Jr.

Mar. 6, 2009

P resident Barack Obama has tried to model himself after Abraham Lincoln. When it comes to the federal workforce, a more apt comparison may be John F. Kennedy.

    Obama hasn’t exhorted Americans to ask themselves what they can do for their country. But early indications are that he has inspired them to consider working for their country.

    The administration, however, faces the same recruiting, retention and development challenges that have bedeviled its predecessors in managing the huge federal bureaucracy, which totaled 1.9 million executive branch employees in 2008.

    The government must solve turnover problems among young employees, fill gaps in the midcareer ranks and find a way to hold on to workers who are nearing retirement, according to experts. It also has to make applying for a civil service job less onerous.

    Initially, it looks as if the “hope” and “change” themes of the Obama campaign are carrying over to governance.

    “He’s already on his way to making government cool again,” says Max Stier, president and CEO of Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group promoting effective government.

    As of Inauguration Day, about 400,000 applications had been submitted for administration political appointments through the Web site Those positions number about 7,000 across federal agencies. The site was shut down after Obama was sworn in, and visitors were referred to the jobs section of www.white, which is still under construction but will presumably connect to the Office of Presidential Personnel when it is completed.

    For those interested in civil service jobs, provided a link to USA, the official site for federal government employment. In early January, about 2.8 million people were visiting each week, up about 500,000 per week from the summer, according to Stier.

    “This is a new era of hands-on government and more active government, and Obama is bringing a lot more people into it,” says John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

    Although the jobs section of was just a one-page information form, Stier says it was useful in channeling the enthusiasm for administration jobs.

“He’s already on his way to making government cool again.”
—Max Stier,
Partnership for Public Service

    “It does appear to me, from the bleacher seats, they have been effective in providing a single portal that is easy to use and informative, which is an accomplishment,” Stier says.

    But given the Internet savvy of the Obama campaign, which reached out to some 10 million people, some observers expected to garner more than a few hundred thousand applications.

    “I would characterize that as low volume,” says Linda Brooks Rix, co-CEO of Avue, a human capital management software company in Washington. “I would have expected that number to be in the seven figures.”

    One of the problems with, according to Rix, was that it didn’t identify specific openings. Avue’s site offers an online version of the “Plum Book,” which lists federal jobs that are filled by political appointment.

    Another shortcoming was that it was more of an aggregator of résumés than a device for identifying talent. Most of those decisions will be made the old-fashioned way—through connections and personal references.

    “I don’t think it will have much value as a selecting tool,” says Scott Cameron, director of global public sector at consulting firm Grant Thornton in Alexandria, Virginia.

Difficult to apply
    For fired-up job seekers, indicating interest in a federal job, either online or by contacting an administration official, is only the beginning of a long process that could include filling out many forms and answering dozens of questions.

    Similar challenges exist in applying for other federal jobs. Although the Office of Personnel Management launched an initiative to significantly reduce the lag between receiving a résumé and making a job offer, the process can still take several months.

    “It’s a nightmare to apply for a federal civil service job,” Cameron says. “If any American company recruited people … the same way the federal government does, then that company would be out of business very soon.”

    Recruiting is just one of many deficiencies in federal workforce management.

“You have this massive capital outlay that you can’t see, you can’t track and you can’t manage.”
—Linda Brooks Rix, Avue

    “Our government’s current system for recruiting, hiring, compensating, training and managing people is broken in too many places,” states a recent report by Grant Thornton and the Partnership for Public Service.

    The report is based on interviews with chief human capital officers throughout the government. “As a result, federal agencies struggle to bring in top talent, often don’t fully utilize the skills of current civil servants, or simply lack enough of the right talent.”

‘A crisis of competence’
    Experts say recent government missteps ranging from the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to more recent crises like approving tainted toys from China and failing to detect a $50 billion financial Ponzi scheme can be traced back to personnel failures.

    With the government being called on to bail out financial markets and pull the country out of a recession, the demands on civil service are sure to grow. But the enthusiasm generated by Obama’s ascension to the White House is concentrated mostly among young people just starting their careers.

    The real strain in the federal workforce is in the more experienced ranks. Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense, says the government “lacks effective ways to bring people in midgrade.”

    He says too many people drop off “the conveyor belt” as they move from the low levels at which they were hired to more senior jobs. Part of the problem is that the government has provided only cost-of-living adjustments rather than real raises for nearly two decades.

    The result is that top civil service performers have departed for the private sector. Many senior managers who have stayed on board are within a few years of retirement.

    “I believe we have a crisis of competence in the government,” Hamre says. “We have not brought in talent in systematic ways for the past 15 years. Government is seriously enfeebled precisely at a time when we need a stronger, more capable and sophisticated government.”

    As in-house talent shrinks, the government has increasingly turned to outside firms to perform services. From 1999 to 2005, the number of federal contractors grew by more than 50 percent to 10.5 million, according to the Congressional Research Service. Critics say that the George W. Bush administration contributed to the trend with its emphasis on privatization.

    The shift has inherent drawbacks, Rix says. Contractors are hired through the procurement office of an agency, sometimes causing a disconnect with the HR department.

    “You have this massive capital outlay that you can’t see, you can’t track and you can’t manage,” Rix says. “You have a system that is not agile … and [is] ripe for corruption.”

    Avue is encouraging the Obama administration to “insource” more federal work by hiring civil service employees. “We don’t have enough expertise in-house to provide oversight of government contractors,” Rix says.

 A talent pipeline
    If the government starts to rely more on its own workforce, it should put more emphasis on talent management, says Maria Grant, federal human-capital practice leader at Deloitte in Washington.

    For instance, the government has a shortage of Food and Drug Administration inspectors. It needs to think through the skills required for the position and work with colleges to produce graduates who are qualified and inspired for the work.

    The objective is to go beyond simply filling openings.

    “We must have much more robust leadership development programs and succession planning,” Grant says. “I’m hoping that the new administration takes a more holistic view and develops a comprehensive workforce planning strategy.”

    But the first order of business is to make it easier for everyone who has renewed enthusiasm about government work to apply for federal jobs.

    “If [Obama] can do that, he will make a major contribution that will extend far beyond his four or eight years in office,” says Grant Thornton’s Cameron.

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