WASHINGTON — For about 30 years, politicians have painted the federal bureaucracy as bloated, unresponsive and impossible to change.
Suddenly, though, the government and its bureaucrats are the good guys working to rescue the broken economy, and Washington is scrambling to find ways to lure and retain talent.
"We're waking up to a moment when the public thinks government really matters," said Linda Bilmes, a professor of public finance at Harvard University.
After all, it's the government that's trying to rescue failing banks, homeowners facing foreclosure, domestic auto companies and the entire American economy.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Federal Workforce Subcommittee, is considering pushing legislation that "tries to cure all the ills in the current system" rather than taking the usual path of incremental change.
He and others are tempted not only by the new mood, but also by two stark realities:
_ President Barack Obama's plans are expected to expand the federal work force by hundreds of thousands in missions as diverse as tracking stimulus spending, helping to manage the baby-boomer deluge that's confronting Social Security and increasing the foreign service.
_ In addition, one-third of the current 1.9 million-member federal civilian work force is eligible to retire within five years.
As a result, the government will need to hire about 600,000 people during Obama's current term, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group.
For a bureaucracy that's known to take a year or more to hire a single employee, that's a major challenge. Lawmakers are seeking ways to overcome three longtime hurdles: the anti-government mind-set, cumbersome federal hiring practices and personnel retention problems.
President Ronald Reagan helped make the bureaucracy a useful target.
"Government is like a baby," he said in March 1981, "an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other."
Bill Clinton declared in 1996 that "the era of big government is over."
In his inaugural address, however, Obama struck a different tone. "The question we ask today," he said, "is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."
Changing attitudes in Congress won't happen overnight — some lawmakers rail against the government almost daily — but there are signs of change.
"It goes without saying that working for the federal government is a great opportunity to serve the United States, and should be a source of pride," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, a conservative who's the top Republican on the Federal Workforce Subcommittee.
Members of Congress and experts think that the federal hiring process can be streamlined fairly easily, perhaps even without legislation. "This is not like trying to find Middle East peace," Bilmes said.
The problem: Job seekers often are stymied when they search for federal positions. Federal job applications often are 10 to 20 pages long, and are "frequently confusing and filled with jargon indecipherable to the average person," said Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service.
The group found that hiring a single employee can involve as many as 110 steps, and some applicants wait a year or longer before getting offers. Those who need security clearances face even more hurdles.
John Berry, the new Office of Personnel Management director, offered some hope. Agencies have received instructions on how to hire people within 80 days, and to write job announcements in what Berry called "concise, plain language." The OPM also has made it easier to hire temporary employees to carry out tasks created by the economic stimulus legislation.
The problem in hiring permanent employees, Stier said, often remains the political appointees who control the process.
They frequently "don't have incentive to focus on something that may be a long-term solution," he said. What's needed is a legislative push — or prodding from the White House — to streamline hiring standards.
Retaining employees may prove to be even more difficult. The more talented the federal employee, the more easily he's wooed into higher-paying private-sector work.
"The federal government invests great energy, effort and money to train the best and the brightest to work somewhere else," said Donald Kettl, the incoming dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.
Bilmes, who co-authored the recently released book "The People Factor: Strengthening America by Investing in Public Service," is concerned about younger workers who've grown up hearing politicians mock the federal system.
They also want work that's flexible, entrepreneurial, quickly rewarded and unshackled by a 9-to-5 office routine.
Many pay- and performance-related incentives are already available, but they often go unused. Patricia Niehaus, speaking for the Federal Managers Association, finds the process "extremely cumbersome," adding that "many managers are also unaware these incentives even exist."
Among the remedies that lawmakers will consider is a system to make pay for good performance easier to implement, and expanding telecommuting, to enable employees to work from home or elsewhere outside the office.
Yvonne Jones, the director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, cited the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a potential model. In fiscal 2006, she said, about 20 percent of patent examiners did at least some of their work away from the office.
The agency, she found, thought that helped retain and recruit employees and reduce traffic congestion _and it meant three fewer floors of office space.
What's important about such discussions is that policymakers and members of Congress are looking for ways to expand the federal work force effectively and make it more nimble.
It's still a huge task, because, Kettl said, "using the term 'federal personnel system' is a stretch."
However, for the first time in a long time, Lynch said, "We have opportunities now we didn't have before."
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