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Uncle Sam doesn't want you; government agencies are a haven for the mediocre because they don't try to get anybody better.

UNCLE SAM DOESN'T WANT YOU

They were the kind of kids companies fall over each other trying to hire--smart, personable, hardworking, well-groomed. That they went to Harvard didn't hurt, either. So it was no surprise that by April, most of the seniors in the discussion sections I was leading as a graduate student had jobs lined up after graduation. Nor was the roster of firms: Arthur Andersen, IBM, Morgan Stanley, CBS, Aetna . . . the usual suspects. What was strange was that one company--the country's biggest, in fact--didn't make the list: the federal government.

True, one woman was considering Capitol Hill; but she was the lone exception among nearly 20 others. Had they been the normal hodgepodge of art history, literature, and economics majors, I wouldn't have given it a second thought. But these were mostly government majors, enrolled in an upper-level course called "Politics in the Modern American State." And they were hardly apolitical or lacking in public spirit. Several kept full calendars housing the homeless, saving the rain forests, and freeing South Africa (often simultaneously). A couple were major players in student government. All of them took great joy in slogging through hundreds of pages on such burning topics as the evolution of bureaucratic structure at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Washington naturals, right? But when I asked how many of them had thought about working in government, they looked at me as if I'd asked if they had considered becoming botanists.

Even if they had been interested, they said, no one had the faintest idea of how to go about getting a federal job. Did recruiters come to campus? Most thought not. Some said you had to take a test. Others said no. The only thing they could agree on was that they didn't care to find out. Excited as they were by the dynamism of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations--civil rights, the Peace Corps, the War on Poverty--those days were long gone. Said one: "Government isn't like that anymore."

Sadly, the view that "government isn't like that anymore" is far from unique among America's young "best and brightest." According to a survey by the National Commission on the Public Service (better known as the Volcker Commission), nearly 90 percent of college honor students never seriously consider working in government. No wonder: About the same proportion believe that government jobs are not "challenging or intellectually stimulating." Fully half are convinced that such jobs are, in fact, inherently monotonous and futile.

Washington has done remarkably little to counter these perceptions. During the Reagan administration, federal recruiting was actually designed to reinforce them. Reagan's team systematically undermined recruiting efforts just as it systematically ran up the federal deficit, and for precisely the same reason: to cripple the cause of government activism. By making the process of getting a government job as cumbersome, slow, and red-tape-riddled as possible, the administration guaranteed that even the most determined would-be bureaucrats would ultimately go scurrying off to interview at Salomon Brothers or, worse, to apply to law school. That, of course, was exactly the idea.

But what an astoundingly bad one. If government is to meet our basic expectations, let alone go beyond that to better our lives, it needs creative, intelligent, dedicated people to develop and run its programs. Government's greatest triumphs during the past century--the New Deal and the New Frontier--were wrought by the hands of the country's "best and brightest" college graduates. Back then, government work was as seductive as investment banking would become decades later. In the early sixties, eager young honor students lined up to buy train tickets to Washington; by contrast, in the early eighties, they jumped on the shuttle to New York. In Liar's Poker, Michael Lewis described the scene outside Princeton's career services office when Lehman Bros. came to interview in 1982: "[It] resembled the ticket booth at a Michael Jackson concert, with lines of motley students staging all-night vigils to get ahead."

It's that kind of cachet that government has to regain if it's going to work well. And don't let anyone tell you that it can't because of its meager salaries. Outlandish pay may have helped fuel the investment-banking binge, but equally important was the perception that the jobs were hot stuff. Consider Teach for America, a widely heralded new program through which recent college grads work as teachers in disadvantaged neighborhood schools for two years at salaries of $18,000 to $29,000 per year, depending on the district. To attract applicants, Teach for America's founder, Wendy Kopp, touted it around the Ivy League and other top schools as "highly selective" and "extremely competitive." Like magic, Kopp soon had 2,500 applications (for 500 spots) from kids who, a year before, might just as easily have ended up swapping stocks on the trading floor.

George Bush seems to understand this principle somewhat. Unlike his former boss, he values the civil service enough to have talked up its virtues. But despite efforts at improvement by his Office of Personnel Management (OPM)--the government's main headhunter--the recruiting system remains a shambles. Witness my former students. Agency outreach to campuses is still almost nonexistent. The job application process is so confusing that even college career counselors don't understand it. Just laying your hands on information about what positions are out there requires the investigative savvy of Bob Woodward and the patience of Job.

"When a student comes to me with some vague idea he or she might be interested in working for the federal government, I don't even know where to start," explains Anne Stewart, placement director at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs and Citizenship for the past 13 years. "The recruitment process is such a maze--it's almost as if it was set up to keep good people out."

Devine intervention

It wasn't always this way. During the fabled first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt's administration, the president's lieutenants recruited with a personal zeal that bordered on the missionary. "With each prominent New Dealer acting as his own employment agency," writes historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., "Washington was deluged with an endless stream of bright young men." John Kennedy's underlings did the same, and so did the president. "Let public service be a proud and lively career," Kennedy said, and college students listened. The number of graduates applying for work through the Civil Service Commission, as OPM was then called, doubled under JFK.

Roosevelt and Kennedy understood that the bureaucracy, despite its shortcomings, could do great things. Under them, at times it did. But for that to happen, people of passion and creativity have to be assembled. And this need goes well beyond the political appointees and members of the senior executive service. There are, after all, only about 10,000 of those plum jobs in a federal civilian workforce that has topped 3 million ever since 1940. That ratio reveals something irrefutable: the top dogs can't do it alone. No matter how inspired--or inspiring--their visions, they are sure to be frustrated if carried out by mediocre hands. For truly good government, good people need to be spread across every department and grade level.

Although this logic is straightforward enough, logic was never one of Ronald Reagan's strong suits. Having roared mightily that "government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem," Reagan directed his administration to conduct its recruiting efforts accordingly. At OPM, as he did elsewhere, Reagan put a frantic ideologue, Donald Devine, in charge. His mandate: institutional self-destruction. Obediently, Devine halted all recruiting by his agency.

The rest of the agencies were forced to follow OPM's lead. Arguments in favor of outreach, Devine would say later, were "basically a cover to get more money." Hence, departments were commanded to stop visiting campuses and developing recruiting materials. Advertising budgets were slashed. All of this was done selectively, of course. The military, defense agencies, and CIA went on as before, to the point where they were the only representatives of government seen at many colleges. Every other agency and program practically vanished from campus.

Reagan and Devine knew that the best way to kill off an undesired agency was to cut off its source of new blood. Take VISTA, a hated remnant of Great Society idealism that drops young people (earning subsistence wages) into poor rural and inner-city environs to teach and perform various sorts of social work. Faced with congressional unwillingness to do away with the program entirely, the administration ordered all recruiting materials destroyed and terminated all outreach efforts. For five full years, VISTA didn't even have a promotional poster. When one finally appeared, it had no phone number printed on it. According to Mimi Major, a top VISTA official in the Carter administration, "The Reagan people essentially said, 'If you want to be a volunteer, we'll make it as difficult for you as we can.' Now you need the skills of Houdini to figure out how to get in. . . . The agency never recovered."

VISTA was emblematic of how Reagan's indiscriminate antigovernment philosophy, when applied to recruiting, amounted to a recipe not for a lean bureaucracy but for a bad one. "The government does not need top graduates, administrative offices staffed with MBAs from Wharton, or policy shops full of the best and brightest whatevers," wrote Terry Cutler, one of Devine's assistants, in a 1986 op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal. "Government's goal should not be employee excellence but employee sufficiency."

By not shooting for both, the government ended up with neither. When Reagan left office, the bureaucracy was more bloated than ever, having actually swelled by 7.5 percent during his tenure. But worse, in the absence of any meaningful recruiting efforts, the quality of the civil service entered into what political scientist James Q. Wilson calls "a death spiral."

Evidence of that decline is largely anecdotal; it's awfully hard to prove that this year's newly christened bureaucrats are less competent or efficient than yesteryear's. But Pat Ingraham, a professor of government at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton who studied the matter for the Volcker Commission, argues that it cannot be denied. "I've talked with hundreds of line managers and administrators from practically every federal agency," she says. "And what I hear is that the quality of new hires is just getting worse and worse. The typical manager will tell you, 'It takes longer for [new employees] to do the work and it's not adequate once it's done.'"

A 1988 report called "Civil Service 2000," commissioned from the Hudson Institute by OPM itself, seconded that verdict. The purposeful neglect of government recruiting had, in effect, helped to bring on "a slowly emerging crisis of competence" in an array of federal programs. Reagan had shunned the goal of luring the "best and brightest," and what the government got instead, said the report, was "the best of the desperate."

Who, then, would have envied Constance Berry Newman, George Bush's choice to breathe life into a rigor-mortised OPM? Yet Newman, at the time a 28-year civil servant who began her career as a clerk-typist in the Department of the Interior, seemed to relish the challenge of resurrection. She quickly declared that "tremendous changes" were needed in recruiting methods throughout government, especially at her own agency.

"No longer will the government be able to sit back and wait for candidates for employment to present themselves and endure long delays before obtaining jobs," Newman told Senator David Pryor's civil service subcommittee early in her tenure. "[W]e are going to have to seek out employees, looking longer and harder and in groups where the government hasn't looked very much before." Obviously delighted by this piece of evidence that the Reagan administration was irrevocably over, Pryor replied: "Ms. Newman. . . . I don't get very excited about a lot of people who take over agencies, but somehow I think that you have what I call the RMA, the right mental attitude."

Judging by the initial flurry of activity at OPM that followed, Pryor's optimism seemed justified. The place was awash in new programs, many of them--in theory--right on target. To simplify the job-seeking process, agencies were given "direct-hire" authority to recruit for and fill certain positions on their own, sans OPM. To make information easier to get, a nationwide phone number was initiated, providing "up-to-the-minute" federal job listings. To compete with the private sector's slick marketing efforts, a $39.4 million campaign called "Career America," featuring a glossy brochure, was launched. It was an auspicious start.

But two years later, theory has yet to really become practice, and the recruiting system bears a distressing resemblance to the way things were. The best of Newman's ideas have been poorly executed; others that seemed promising on paper turned out to be less so once implemented. Mainly, though, OPM's recruiting drive has suffered from an acute disparity between talk and action--an abundance of the former, scarcely any of the latter. "Apart from cosmetics," says Syracuse's Anne Stewart, "nothing much has changed."

Spooks and swine

Nowhere is that more true than in the area with which Stewart and other college placement specialists are most familiar: campus outreach. Despite OPM's "encouragement" of individual agencies to hunt new talent aggressively on college campuses, few have done so. Indeed, according to OPM itself, almost 60 percent of the 236 federal departments and agencies have no recruiting budget whatsoever. And, of course, no budget means no recruiting. A recent GAO report drove home the point: In most schools' placement offices, the government is nowhere to be seen. Last year, 222 organizations interviewed students at Michigan State. Only seven were federal agencies. Most of the U.S. government does a lousier job of recruiting than Taco Bell and DeKalb Swine Breeders, Inc.--both of which did make it to MSU.

"We still see the same ones as before--the CIA, the NSA [National Security Agency], and the Pentagon," remarks John Hennen, an assistant director of placement at the University of Minnesota. "The military, too. Unfortunately, though, that's about it." As Andrew Nussbaum, a law student at the University of Chicago, pointed out in an op-ed piece this past October in the Los Angeles Times, you don't have to be antimilitary or antinational security to realize that such agencies "hardly exhaust the government's employment opportunities."

Ironically, OPM itself is a principal reason why many of what would probably be the most enticing agencies--like the EPA or the Agency for International Development--don't visit colleges to recruit. While OPM's recent reforms have allowed the agencies to hire directly, that's only true for certain hard-to-fill technical, scientific, and specialized positions. For the majority of management, administrative, and policymaking jobs, applicants must still go through OPM.

Perhaps even more perverse, those agencies that do recruit are often phenomenally inept at it. Two-thirds of them, according to OPM, treat recruiting as a "collateral duty"--that is, one for which no full-time staff (or staff member) is responsible. Usually this means that recruiting chores are handed out as a sort of booby-prize to those who lack the seniority or guile to avoid them. These hapless employees are sent forth thoroughly unprepared; more than half, says OPM, receive no training whatsoever for their mission.

The results are predictable. Almost any college career counselor can tell you about a common problem: The Underconfident Government Recruiter. "He'll come in and start apologizing immediately," explains Chuck Sundberg, a placement officer at UCLA. "'I know our salaries are uncompetitive,' he says, 'I know we're not glamorous.' Instead of talking about their strengths, they dwell on weaknesses." Another career adviser recalls: "We had a recruiter from the energy department who actually told several honor students that they'd be idiots to want to work in government. I couldn't believe it."

Neither could SUNY's Ingraham when she ran across another, only slightly less common archetype--the Ignorant, Rude, Obnoxious, Lazy, and Tardy Government Recruiter. "I had arranged for a recruiter from a federal agency--I shouldn't say which--to come to [campus]," she said. "We had nine students sign up, all bright, all interested in federal employment. He told them to gather for a joint meeting at 8:30 a.m. so he could talk about the agency before interviewing each of them individually. The students were there. The recruiter was not. He finally showed up two hours late, refused to reschedule appointments, and instead just gave a big group interview. He rushed through. He was gruff and unknowledgeable. And all he said was, 'You see, this is what I do. I go around and talk to people when I feel like it and if I don't no one checks and I pull down thirty-two-point-five a year and it's a piece of cake.' Then he left." Postscript: All of the students there that day ended up in the private sector.

The disastrous thing about the dearth of campus outreach--not to mention the kind of tragicomic episodes described by Ingraham and others--is that it leaves untapped an incredible reservoir of students who are interested in public service but aren't sure exactly what to do about it. "These are the kids who come in not knowing what they're looking for and, in the absence of any other viable alternative, will end up going private," says Lynn Wehnes, a career counselor at Harvard. "The corporate route provides them with the path of least resistance."

"In the private sector, it's so straighforward; they have brochures describing their jobs, they come to campus to talk to you, and you can decide," says Rebecca Slaven, a 1990 Vanderbilt grad who interned on Capitol Hill, liked Washington, and thought for awhile about coming back to work at an agency. "But with the government, you can never find anything out. The recruiting materials at school are vague and way too general. You try to get information directly and no one knows what's available. You ask them to send you stuff and it never comes. After a while, you just decide it's not worth it."

Slaven knows better than most just how frustrating "getting the low-down" on federal employment can be. Her congressional internship was with Senator Pryor, who during the summer of 1989 decided to see whether Newman's OPM was living up to its promises. Pryor did what Congress rarely does: investigate a problem directly--in this case by sending his interns out to roam Washington's federal corridors. Go to the agencies, he told them, try to find out what jobs are there, come back and tell me what you learn.

Wha they found, in Pryor's understated words, was that "the system is not operating smoothly." OPM's new policy was to send would-be civil servants directly to the places where they wanted to work, but it seemed no one had though to inform the agencies. Personnel officers were brusque or absent; job listings were out of date; secretaries were frankly discouraging; many times the students couldn't even get past security at the buildings.

One intern, Libby Schnipper, was told by a disgruntled HUD staff member, "Look, you fill out the forms, we put your name into the computer, and we'll call you when it comes up." When, queried Schnipper, might that be? "Probably never." Another, Mary McLeod, says that when she visited the Department of Labor, a personnel staff member told her that unless she "knew someone" her chances of getting an interview were slim. "When I asked him how he got his job, he said, 'My mother works downstairs.'"

Meanwhile, J. D. Walth, then a young staff member for Pryor and currently a law student at the University of Arkansas, was dispatched on the most daunting of assignments--OPM itself. Daunting because the job information center at OPM's Washington headquarters has for years been notorious for its mind-numbing inefficiency. "It's pure hell over there," says Mary Ellen Glynn, a former legislative assistant on Capitol Hill who tried getting job information from OPM when she first came to Washington in 1987. "It's just form after form after form, all essentially indecipherable without some sort of secret code book. Long lines, unhelpful people, totally useless. I went in there at least three or four times, and I still don't have a clue about how you go about getting a federal job."

Hard to believe, but Walt found it worse than that. "They've got these computers that are supposed to answer your questions, but don't," he told me. "So I get in line to talk to one of the assistants. All of a sudden she looks up and says she's closing and that the last person she was going to wait on was the guy in the pink shirt. He was right in front of me. So I decided to wait, because I'd come all the way across town and all. When I got to the window, she pulled the partition right in my face, without even saying hello, goodbye, or I'm sorry. I was furious."

Well, I say to Wat, arbitrary cut-off points are part of life, you know, it happens to everyone. "At 2:30 in the afternoon?" Oh.

It's tempting, of course, to dismiss the accounts of Pryor's interns as petty complaints. But they make a simple point: Recruitment is still not high priority at the agencies. When someonw who sits five floors bellow Director Newman is closing up shop at 2:30 p.m., the message is obviously not trickling down.

Lines of resistance

Confronted with this observation, OPM's response to Pryor was, essentially, give it time. Now, a year later, Marsha Frost, deputy chief for affirmative employment at OPM, tells me, "Those sorts of things are unlikely to happen today." As for the lack of information on campus--arguably more critical, since that's where most students will make their first career decisions--she points to the "College Hotline" 900-number and says things are much better. I decide to see for myself.

My first stop is OPM. It is, for one thing, more colorful than I had expected. The countless job listings and other notices that fill the glass cases on the walls are a rainbow of blue, yellow, pink, and green. Several bulleting boards are blanketed with the aesthetically pleasing pages of the "Career America" brochure, which pictures a remarkably racially balanced lot of young workers demonstrably enjoying their jobs. Their smiling faces contrast noticeably with those of the would-be civil servants scouring the job listings and squinting at the interactive computer terminals.

"How long have you been at this?" I ask a job seeker in his mid-20s. "Nine months," he says, "I'm about ready to give up. I keep sending out these damned applications and nothing ever comes back. I haven't had a single interview yet ... and I've got a college degree." Several others make similar comments; why will become clear to me later.

After waiting in line to talk to the woman behind the infamous information counter (who is pleasant and perfectly helpful), I return to jot down a few job listings. The array of postings--all in one huge display case--is staggering, running from autopsy assistant and air traffic controller through grievance analyst to phlebotomist and police officer. I make note of 10 openings at random and leave.

Next it's a whirlwind tour of the agencies--IRS, Commerce, Energy, Treasury. I quickly find that despit each department's different function, their personnel staffs seem to have been trained by the same manual. Its first rule, I surmise, must be "Treat all potential job applicants with complete indifference." As I lean over the front desk in the Treasury Department's personnel lobby, the young woman sitting behind it chats on the phone with her boyfriend. I shuffle my feet. Elsewhere in the office, a middle-management type experiments with a different sort of recruiting technique--aggressively flirting with his secretary. Fifteen minutes of throat-clearing later, I am informed that I should come back next week.

The other agencies are somewhat more promising. At most of them I am directed to the job vacancy listings. Unfortunately, they appear to require that code book Mary Ellen Glynn was talking about. The bits that I can understand provide slim comfort. "Promotion Potential: None" is stamped across the top of at least half of them. "Open to [this agency's] employees only" is also common. Many are out of date, the application deadlines having passed days--or weeks--earlier.

The job descriptions themselves are written in dreadful bureaucratese. A program analyst vacancy at the IRS is detailed thus: "Incumbent is responsible for developing and issuing instructions, procedures, and forms necessary for field program execution; reviewing and analyzing the impact of complex cases and those requiring National Office examination plan approval; assists in planning, evaluation, and implementation of nationwide programs for exempt organizations."

Discouraged, I return to my office to phone about the jobs I learned about at OPM. The response is unanimous: 10 calls, 10 positions filled long ago. The most recent? That of a fishery biologist at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, taken nearly two weeks earlier. The oldest? That of an asset information systems development manager with the Customs Service, filled about sixe weeks ago. The most telling? A supervisory auditor slot at EPA, which, it turns out, never open to nonagency applicants in the first place. Why, then, was it posted at OPM? The woman at the other end of the line replied: "I have no idea."

The point here is not that government agencies are often staffed with apathetic know-nothings or that someone should make sure that vacancy listings are kept current (although both those are true), but that to the eager student interested in serving the public interest, whether temporarily or for a career, the whole system must seem a hopeless quagmire. Before he even applies, he has tangled with a government that lives up to the most outlandish stereotype of confusion and rigidity ever offered by Ronald Reagan and his conservative cronies.

Reach out and touch no one

And this is only for the lucky few who personally brave Washington in search of professional fulfillment. The rest, stranded at their schools and probably not among those fortunate enough to talk with a competent government recruiter, are left with OPM's great hi-tech hope: the automated College Hotline. According to the "Career America" brochure, calling it is "your first step to begin learning about the exciting public service career that awaits you." If, however, you've ever dealt with one of these touch-tone systems--inescapable nowadays when calling banks, credit-card companies, or Amtrak--you know it's more likely to be your first step to ripping your phone off the wall.

You call anyway. Welcome to Career America's College Hotline, a summary of career opportunities for college students and graduates. You will be charged 40 cents per minut for this service.

Terrific. Recruiting tool as revenue enhancer. That the government expects students to pay for the privilege of being electronically recruited says a great deal about what's wrond with government recruiting.

Career America--find out why the U.S. government is becoming the first choice.... For general information on federal employment, press 1. For a list of federal career opportunities, press 2. To hear agency recruiting messages, press 3. To repeat this message, press 8. Beep. You have chosen to get information about federal employment. The federal government is an equal opportunity employer. For information about federal salaries and benefits, press 1. For information on how to apply for federal jobs, press 2. For information on student and intern employment programs, press 3. To repeat this message, press 8....

On and on this goes, menu after menu after menu. OPM estimates that the average call to the Hotline should last between four and five minutes, though no hard data is available. But each of my calls took more than 10 minutes, creating two questions for every one answered. What did I get for my eight dollars? Concrete information was scant; for example, fewer than a dozen agencies had recruiting messages on the Hotline. And although I left my name and address after the appropriate beep, the packet I requested in September on government careers in writing and public affairs has yet to arrive as of this writing two months later. Even allowing for glacial mail service, it's fair to say, in "Doonesbury's" phrase, that "there're still a few bugs in the system."

For all its flaws, however, the College Hotline is terribly clear about the application ordeal that lies ahead for any student who, after all this, decides the bureaucracy is still for him. The centerpiece of OPM's innovations is a new civil service exam called ACWA (Administrative Careers With America), designed to restore "merit hiring" to a system widely criticized for lack thereof (its forerunner, the Professional and Administrative Career Examination, was dropped in 1981 because it allegedly discriminated against minorities). In addition, ACWA was created to help "simplify" federal employment policy.

It hasn't. In fact, it has created yet another obstacle for students who have, by this time, already cleared quite a few. Those planning to take the test (actually one of six tests covering the majority of jobs that liberal arts majors might want) this fall had to register by early October, well before many angst-ridden seniors had set foot in their college placement offices. Worse, says Harvard's Lynn Wehnes, OPM has informed colleges that this may be the only time the exam is offered this academic year. "That means a lot of our kids who might have been interested will be out of luck," she comments. "Tell me how that makes sense."

Other absurdities abound. Students who pass the test, for instance, have their scores put on a rank-ordered list that agencies use to pick people to interview. But the students have no say about which agencies they might like to work for. Moreover, the applicant's name often remains on the list for up to nine full months without prompting any agency response--plenty of time for him or her to be lured away by a private company's recruiter who can hire on the spot. Even the test's high scorers are frequently completely ignored,

"Why go through the hassle of taking this test when, number one, the only job you might get offered is with some agency you have no interest in, and number two, you might not hear for almost a year?" wonders Phil Kehoe, a senior at Berkeley. Kehoe thought about taking the writing and public information test, but then reconsidered. "I'm not going to put my other career options on hold and then end up with the Agriculture Department calling."

Syracuse's Anne Stewart suspects that Kehoe is not unusual. "Again, the comparison with the private sector is instructive," she says. "There it's very cut and dried. You send a resume, you get an interview or you don't, you get an offer or you don't. Here you take a test and then God knows what happens.... I can't tell you the number of students who simply aren't willing to wait until May to find out whether they have a job or not.... I think [ACWA] is going to deter a lot of kids. The tests are not a solution; they just add to the problem."

ACWA's defenders argue that without it, the merit principle that supposedly guides federal hiring would be thrown out the window--that the premium placed on "knowing someone" would become astronomical. But the idea of a pure "merit principle" determining government hiring policy has always been a naive dream, albeit an attractive one. The reality? More than 30 percent of the civil service hirees in any given year go through "excepted authorities," meaning noncompetitive channels arranged by agencies to bring in particular people.

Custom tailoring

Still more common are mid-level positions filled competitively in theory but far from it in practice. A GS-14 at the Department of Education explains: "If an agency has a lower-level employee in mind for some spot that's opening up but that has to be posted and 'competitive,' they just tailor the job description so only that person's [application] fits it. It's all coordinated. You don't know this until you've been in government awhile, but there's this modus operandi that's usually unspoken but very clear."

Such shenanigans are inevitable under any recruiting and hiring system. The goal, therefore, should not be--cannot be--the elimination of "knowing someone" but rather its democratization. A fair policy would give college students of all classes and backgrounds the chance to "know someone," especially through summer internships and cooperative programs. It would also feature deferrals for government student loan payments so long as the fledgling civil servant's salary fell below some limit, says $18,000 per year. It might even, as Rep. Pat Schroeder has suggested, include a ROTC-style scholarship program offering full or partial tuition to students willing to commit to a stint in a federal agency. The military shells out more than $385 million a year for ROTC; the bureaucracy, at least as vital to the national security, should do the same.

The ideal policy would not, however, include ACWA. OPM should follow the logic that led it to give direct-hire authority to the agencies for certain jobs to its natural conclusion. A decentralized system in which agencies are responsible for their own recruiting makes infinite sense. Without ACWA and OPM as a central and ineffective employee clearinghouse, the agencies would be forced to develop their own recruiting strategies. And students might be spared some of the dispiriting chaos they now encounter.

Even so, OPM would still have important work to do, especially in refurbishing the tattered image of government jobs. Contrary to Paul Volcker's widely held view, federal wages are not keeping students away, the federal image is. "I'm not going to tell you money isn't important," says Mary McLeod, "but experience is a lot more important to me. I'd give up a big salary, at least for a while, if I thought the government would challenge me and teach me. But I just don't think that's true.... Government work is mostly pushing paper."

Sorghumsomething

That perception, shared by virtually every student and not a few bureaucrats, needs to change. And change it can. Management consultants, who spend most of their waking hours poring over spreadsheets in airport terminals, are nevertheless worshipped by business school students far and wide as jet-set powerbrokers. Real estate speculators, who lately have been spending much of their time scanning the want ads, are still seen as shrewd predators by many undergraduates. And then there's corporate law, a patently dreary profession that, thanks to "L.A. Law"'s razzle-dazzle editing and plethora of perfect teeth, thousands of otherwise intelligent young men and women think of as the epitome of glamour and panache.

If these tedious occupations can seem sexy, why can't government? Perhaps what's needed is a television series like "L.A. Law" focusing on the bureaucracy--on, say, the Agriculture Department. Call it "Sorghumsomething." Or a series of ads modeled on the military's: "Be all that you can be, in the Treasury!" To make light of such publicity tactics is not to dismiss their real potential. Those who have served in the armed forces may chuckle when they see one of the "Be all that you can be" ads, but the campaign has unquestionably helped improve the quality of the all-volunteer military. That kind of aggressive marketing could help the civil service, too. It certainly couldn't hurt.

And it might not even be such a tough sell, because--truth be told--a great many government jobs are not boring at all. "I never thought I'd find anything in government that would let me combine my interests in international affairs, business, and trade," explains Julie Rauner, a desk officer for Latin America at the Commerce Department. "But boy was I wrong. I love it--I can't imagine anything in the private sector that would give me the same sense of accomplishment."

Many government positions hide their merits behind bland job descriptions. Leonard Newmark, recently hired as an auditor at GAO, tells me how one of his first assignments was "figuring out ways to increase the Customs Bureau's disposal of asset forfeitures." What that involved, it turns out, was writing, producing, and directing a video for the bureau on how it should go about selling off the ill-gotten possessions of convicted drug dealers in order to turn the highest profit in the shortest time. Important work, and far from what most of us think of as "auditing."

And then there's Lisa Carlos. In her second year out of college, Carlos landed a position as a "program analyst" with the Department of Education's migrant education office. Her official job description--"to conduct site visits of federally funded projects and to check compliance with regulatory and statutory guidelines and provide technical assistance"--is all eyeshades and fine print. But to listen to Carlos, the job is everything but.

"I took one trip out into the middle of Indiana. It was cucumber season and we went out to a migrant farm camp, where the poverty was worse than anything I had ever seen before--worse than in Mexico.... The principal of the school in the nearby town was having funding troubles and he couldn't keep all of his buses running. But with fewer buses, it meant the migrant kids filled them up before they got into the more affluent neighborhoods.... It was suspected that the school had decided to have the migrant kids kept out of school by saying they had head lice. We were there to make sure these kids were able to get an education, as they were entitled to under the law.

"It was on that trip that I first realized how critical it was to these people that I was there--that there be bright, motivated people there to help them."

In the recruiting battle against the private sector, people like Carlos, Newmark, and Rauner can be the government's secret weapon. Their jobs--engrossing, inspiring, important--are by no means extraordinary in government. If the word gets out, maybe the best and the brightest will begin to take a second look.

John Heilemann writes for The Economist in Washington. Research assistance provided by Andrew Bates.
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Author:Heilemann, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1990
Words:6350
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