An Inky/WaPo “Good Government” (Sort Of) Screed

April 28, 2009

hiattI have to admit that this was a rather curious editorial from the Inquirer today written by Fred Hiatt (pictured) of the Washington Post, in which he sneaks in a dig at the federal government and “how little many Americans expect of (it),” as well as the fact that approximately 600,000 government jobs will need to be filled in the next four years, according to Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service…

The opportunity lies not only in the huge number of looming vacancies, but also in two factors driving young people to consider government jobs: excitement about President Obama, and the fact that nobody but the government is hiring. The federal government, old (one-quarter of the workforce is younger than 40, compared with half in the private sector) and often lumbering, has a chance to become younger, nimbler, and more talented.

I’ll be honest with you – I don’t like Fred Hiatt for reasons that have nothing to do with staffing levels of our government (though the dig I highlighted certainly doesn’t work in his favor).

I don’t like Fred Hiatt because he’s nothing but a Bush (and Iraq War) apologist (and a pretty damn plain McCain booster, all of which is noted here; hey, if he supported McCain and he were a UPS driver, plumber, or anything else not involving media manipulation, that would have been fine – the problem is that he’s the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, and he advanced his opinions for himself pretty clearly).

In his column quoting what Stier has to say (Hiatt probably should have just let Stier do the honors instead), both individuals leave it up to Obama to re-energize government, which is a worthy goal (just add it to the multitude of other messes left to our current president by Number 43).

However, the following should be pointed out from here…

(Hiatt’s column) has some serious problems, among them, skipping over the fact that the Obama administration has begun to shape its response to the federal workforce crisis. Hiatt only quotes Max Stier (a frequent source of mine), who condemns the administration’s actions to this point. Hiatt doesn’t appear to have spoken to anyone in the Obama administration, and he does not mention Michelle Obama’s visit to the Office of Personnel Management, the president’s challenge to federal employees to come up with ways to improve government, or the fact that Obama’s OPM Director John Berry, is in place, along with almost his entire leadership team, much earlier than his predecessors.

It should also be noted that, when it comes to funding government agencies, the Obama Administration is operating under a resolution that holds funding for most departments to ’08 levels, as noted here, which definitely impacts hiring.

That didn’t reduce government expenditures under Dubya, however – far from it; this 2004 post, showing that federal spending increased at its fastest rate in 30 years, projected that Dubya wouldn’t veto legislation, though he did that frequently after the Dems took over Congress in 2006.

So what have the agencies done in response to utilize their experienced workforce as effectively as possible? As noted from here…

Officials from (HUD, SSA and USAID)…told us that they have difficulty attracting qualified staff with specialized skills. To address these challenges, the three agencies rely on older workers in different ways. USAID brings back its knowledgeable and skilled retirees as contractors to fill short-term job assignments and to help train and develop the agency’s growing number of newly hired staff. SSA uses complex statistical models to project potential retirements in mission critical occupations and uses these data to develop recruitment efforts targeted at a broad pool of candidates, including older workers. While all three agencies rely on older workers to pass down knowledge and skills to junior staff, HUD officials told us this is the primary way they involve older workers, due in part to the agency’s focus on recruiting entry-level staff.

…the federal government has historically enjoyed relatively high retention rates, with 40 percent or more of federal employees remaining in the workforce for at least 5 years after becoming eligible (for retirement).

As noted above, it would have been nice if Hiatt had bothered to talk to someone from the Obama Administration before he wrote this. He is right, though, to point out that the government always benefits from an influx of new talent, as much as that talent can be absorbed given existing staffing and budgetary constraints. However, given this story (somehow, though, I don’t think the scenario has changed since it was written, expect maybe to get worse), I think Hiatt ought to pay more attention to the “graying” of his own business first (and just try referring to your colleagues as “often lumbering,” Fred – I dare you).

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