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Brain Drain U S Govt*

Specialist Accuses Bush Of Ignoring 'Talent Drain'

By Ellen Nakashima

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, July 11, 2001; Page A17

The Bush administration has shown no indication that it intends to do anything to address an impending government talent drain, in which more than half the 1.8 million-person workforce will be eligible to retire in the next few years, government specialist Norman Ornstein said yesterday.

Ornstein, speaking to about 150 federal managers at the Senior Executive Association Conference in Washington, referred to a "looming crisis" in public administration.

Many senior managers are retiring, and the government is finding it cannot compete with the private sector in recruiting college graduates, especially in technology fields, to replace them, he said. This becomes more important in an age in which cyberterrorism could become a threat, he said.

Administration officials countered that they are indeed intent on attacking what they call the "human capital" crisis, only they are focusing first on what can be done under existing law.

There are dozens of waivers to the civil service hiring and firing laws, for example, that have been granted to the Defense Department, and officials at the Office of Management and Budget want to assess how well those have worked before seeking legislative remedies.

"One advantage of being an academic is you can be creative and encouraging without actually having to do the work of reforming a 2 million-strong workforce," OMB spokesman Chris Ullman said, responding to Ornstein's statements. "We're moving ahead and [stemming the brain drain] remains a top priority of the administration."

Ullman said that before the White House details a government-wide plan, it needs to determine what works and what does not in the agencies.

"When these puzzle pieces are in place, then you figure out, 'This is what we need to do that relates to legislative fixes,' " he said.

Earlier in the day, Comptroller General David M. Walker told the senior executives that the White House would be prudent to take such a "phased approach."

Walker, who heads the investigative arm of Congress, the General Accounting Office, estimates 80 percent of what is needed to resolve the human capital situation can be done under current law. Then the administration should move to legislative reforms.

The final step, he said, would be building a consensus for comprehensive civil service reform. But he said reform is unlikely before 2003, and certainly not in an election year.

Administration officials also noted that the federal personnel director, Kay Coles James, has not been confirmed as head of the Office of Personnel Management. That has hindered efforts to address workforce issues.

In fact, Ornstein, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, criticized the White House for moving slowly on the appointments process as well. So far, 128 appointees for the 500 most senior administration jobs have been confirmed, according to the Brookings Institution.

In particular, Ornstein said, simply by reversing a half-century-old executive order, the administration could have streamlined the lengthy FBI background check process, which applies across the spectrum from the secretary of defense to the 40 members of the Holocaust Commission.

But White House officials said they were working as quickly as possible, and in fact, spokesman Anne Womack said, as of June 30, had sent 315 nominations to the Senate, surpassing the three previous administrations as of the same date.

Ornstein said the ranks of political appointees, which total around 3,000, ought to be thinned. There are "hundreds" of assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary jobs that formerly were held by career government officials, and that has also thwarted upward mobility for the senior executives, he said.

The SEA, which represents about 1,600 career government executives, has no official position on reducing the number of political appointees, but individually, many members say that would be a good idea.

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