Politics

Transition Means Upheaval For Civil Servants

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President-elect Obama has a massive "Blueprint for Change" for federal workers. Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, and Frederick Knickerbocker, a civil servant who survived five presidential transitions, talk to Andrea Seabrook about what happens to career civil servants when administrations changes dramatically.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Mr. Obama has promised to make working for the government cool again. Even before the election, he began reaching out to the federal workforce with a series of letters outlining his plans for change in the civil service.

And that got us wondering. What happens to career civil servants when a new administration comes in and wants to turn everything upside down? In a moment, we'll hear from a veteran federal employee who made it through five presidential transitions.

But first, we turn to Max Stier. He's president and CEO of the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service. I asked him if he thought federal employees are feeling cooler yet.

Mr. MAX STIER (President and CEO, Partnership for Public Service): I think they probably already feel a little bit cooler, but the federal employee has been either overlooked or maligned all too often. And there's a lot of rebuilding, frankly, that has to be done. You're looking at a workforce that is, in large number, retirement eligible or soon to be retirement eligible, upwards of a third potentially retirement eligible in the next five years.

And you have a lot of new challenges, New things that people are being asked to do, so we really ought to be seeing a much bigger investment in that career workforce than we've ever seen before.

SEABROOK: You monitor these people and these positions. How do they feel after eight years of President Bush in charge?

Mr. STIER: What you really see is strong mission commitment. People are in government service, in the career civil service, because they care about trying to help America solve its most challenging problems. But a federal worker is twice as likely to think poorly of their leadership as a comparable private sector employee. It's a real problem, and it's the number-one issue that needs to be addressed in order to have a more engaged workforce.

SEABROOK: I understand there's a way for political appointees to be reclassified as top career civil servants, which means the new administration can't just kick 'em out when they come in. It's known as burrowing, and we heard this week that a number of President Bush's appointees are doing this. Is this common during a presidential transition?

Mr. STIER: You have these stories every transition, and the reality is that, in most instances, it's hard to make that transition. You have to apply for a job. You actually have to meet the qualifications. There is substantial oversight that's done both by the Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office.

SEABROOK: Can that mean, though, that there will be some trace of the Bush power structure in departments like Justice and the EPA?

Mr. STIER: Not likely to be large numbers. But again, the broader picture really is that we need a rebuilding of government.

SEABROOK: Max Stier of the Partnership for Public Service. Thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. STIER: Thank you so much.

SEABROOK: We turn now to a retired civil servant who lived through transition after transition after transition. Frederick Knickerbocker, he retired from the Commerce Department in 2005 after nearly three decades in government. Welcome to the show.

Mr. FREDERICK KNICKERBOCKER (Retired Civil Servant, Commerce Department): Thank you. Glad to be here.

SEABROOK: When did you first get your start?

Mr. KNICKERBOCKER: In 1976, I reported to the Department of Commerce on the day Gerald Ford lost the election. So, my very first day in government service was a day of transition from one administration to another.

SEABROOK: Now, this can be tricky for a career civil servant. You've been working diligently for one administration with one set of goals and politics, and now, suddenly, you have to turn and work for another administration with a different set of goals and politics. Which transition was most difficult? And tell me about it.

Mr. KNICKERBOCKER: Oh, I suppose the transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. I mean, if you're a career civil servant, your reason for existing is to try to provide, you know, government services or to affect government policy. And if you have an administration that comes in and says, as Ronald Reagan famously said, government isn't the solution; government is the problem, this is a bit of a jolt.

SEABROOK: How do you navigate that?

Mr. KNICKERBOCKER: First off, you start with caution. You're trying to get to know who the political appointees are going to be, what attitudes they will bring to the job. They're trying to find out what you've been doing, and quite frankly, how flexible are you going to be?

My take on this whole thing is that career civil servants really do believe in the political process. If you're a career civil servant, you're obliged to respect the decisions of the nation. Here's a new boss, and that's a new boss because the nation has decided they want that to be the new boss. So, you better pay attention to them.

SEABROOK: Frederick Knickerbocker retired from public service in 2005. His most recent position was associate director for economic programs at the Census Bureau. Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. KNICKERBOCKER: Glad to be here.

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