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From Bureaucrats to Heroes
An Essay by Max Stier

audio Listen to Stier's essay.

Oct. 14, 2001 -- For federal workers, the days and weeks following the September 11th tragedies might have been confusing. In just a few hours, they went from pariah to popular; unappreciated to adored. Political leaders used to refer to our federal work force as cubicle-dwelling bureaucrats, the deserving butt of "How many does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" jokes. Then came September 11th.

Suddenly, the need for a competent federal work force became glaringly obvious. Now we have serious discussion on Capitol Hill about whether federal workers are necessary to ensure airline security. On TV news, bureaucrats are morphing into "these brave men and women." People are coming out of the woodwork to inquire about federal service opportunities. This could be a defining moment for a generation, like when President Kennedy told Americans "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," or when the Reverend Martin Luther King told us about his dream and the government's role in making it come true.

"How about taking a serious look at ways we can make federal jobs more rewarding so that talented workers choose to stay in the government?"

Max Stier

But I'm concerned this may only be an aberration that evaporates when our all-too-short national attention span turns elsewhere, and that makes me nervous. In the next three years, more than half the federal work force could be eligible to retire. This means everyone from the FEMA folks we've been seeing a lot of lately to the people at USDA who are out there every day making sure our food is safe. That's a lot of expertise and institutional memory walking out the door. And let's face it, today's Phi Beta Kappa graduates just aren't beating down the doors to get jobs in the Social Security Administration or the Commerce Department.

Imagine a CEO faced with losing half of his or her employees in three years. You can bet the problem would be addressed quickly. So let's do something about it. I'm not talking Hug a Bureaucrat Day, or anything like that. Maybe just a little respect or a positive media story once in a while when there isn't a crisis. And how about taking a serious look at ways we can make federal jobs more rewarding so that talented workers choose to stay in the government?

So how many federal workers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? I don't know, but I wouldn't want to end up in the dark.

Max Stier is the president of the non-profit group Partnership for Public Service.