Give feds a break

When the inaugural glamour fades and governing begins, one decision confronting any new president is how he and his political appointees will relate to the federal government's career workforce.

To people coming from outside Washington, D.C., this may seem a deceptively easy choice: What downside is there to bashing "bureaucrats"?

Americans collectively sigh and cluck at the horror stories in which the evening news exposes bureaucrats in "fleecing of America" segments. Yet those exercises in faux fearless reporting actually bear more resemblance to bullies kicking a weakling in the schoolyard.

Bashing bureaucrats should be resisted. It is unfair. The horror stories that promote such tactics, often concocted to promote an ideological agenda, virtually always turn out to be oversimplified or downright false. Many Americans believe the Pentagon paid $600 for a $6 hammer, a story first promoted by Democrats to fight the Reagan-era military buildup. In fact, it never happened.

The supposed price was an artifact of a cost-accounting procedure under which a pool of (legitimate) costs, common to a group of inexpensive and expensive items, was divided up equally for each item rather than according to the item's value. That made the hammer appear overpriced, while also making expensive items seem underpriced, a fact nobody noted.

In 1997, to great fanfare, dramatic accusations of Internal Revenue Service harassment of innocent taxpayers were made before a Senate committee, this time to promote a Republican anti-tax agenda. A few years later, to virtually no fanfare, a careful investigation of the allegations by the General Accounting Office showed the accusations to be groundless.

Using the federal workforce as a punching bag for cheap political points is offensive. But at the end of the day, it is also counterproductive, particularly for a president who needs to show real successes to overcome a fragile popular mandate.

Government work takes place through the career workforce. To improve performance without engaging those workers is like trying to push on a string. And eventually, as Joel Aberbach and Bert Rockman show in their fine new book "In the Web of Politics," senior political appointees of both the Reagan and first Bush administrations came to conclude that the quality of senior federal career managers was quite high.

It's better to reach that conclusion at the beginning of an administration, when there's still time to engage workers in efforts to improve performance, rather than grudgingly and too late. Career people need policy direction and performance measures to motivate them to try harder and focus on what executives consider important.

They need a better civil service system to ease the recruitment and retention of talent. They don't need to be demeaned or treated as the only group in society about whom it is still permissible to express insulting stereotypes.

Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997, is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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