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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

On ‘Parks and Recreation,’ the Joke’s on the Feds

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Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in "Parks and Recreation." Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in "Parks and Recreation." NBC

NBC’s Parks and Recreation, arguably the most pro-government sitcom in the history of television, is going out with a bang this year. And in the process, intentionally or not, it is presenting the federal government in a hilarious -- if not always accurate -- fashion.

For those who haven’t been following the show, its central character, Leslie Knope, has made the jump from local government in Pawnee, Ind., to a position at the National Park Service. On last night’s episode, Leslie got an opportunity to move even higher up the ranks at the Interior Department:

There’s a lot to unpack in that 30 seconds of video. Let’s take a closer look.

“We’d like to promote you to deputy director of operations at Interior,” says the official who offers her the job. But there is no deputy director of operations at Interior. (There is a deputy secretary, who serves as the department’s chief operating officer. Maybe that’s the job they had in mind. But that’s quite a leap from a Park Service regional office position.)

“You’d have to move to D.C.,” the official says, “and you’d have to complete the Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program.” Leslie is extremely enthusiastic about that prospect: “I’d have to enroll in SESCDP? Forty-four weeks of intensive courses and note-taking? Umm, it’s a dream come true!”

According to the Office of Personnel Management, SESCDPs must last a minimum of 12 months. So 44 weeks wouldn’t quite cut it -- although they may not be counting developmental assignments in that calculation, so we can probably cut them some slack there.

But then comes the kicker: “I have to warn you, there’ll be a confirmation hearing.”

That means Leslie would be a political appointee. And there are two things that are downright quaint about that:

  • The idea that a career federal employee would be nominated to a politically appointed position. That’s not unheard of, but pretty rare.
  • The notion that an appointee would be expected to go through almost a year’s worth of executive training to be deemed ready for a high-ranking position in an agency. Let’s just say your average appointee has not been through the SES candidate development program -- or is even a member of the SES.

Of course, in the world of Parks and Rec, federal officials have already:

  • Up and moved a regional office headquarters to an Indiana town virtually overnight -- and apparently without the consent of Congress -- at the behest of a prospective federal manager.
  • Allowed that manager to hire her friends and former co-workers to staff said office.
  • Looked the other way when that manager fired at least one incompetent employee with no due process.

So they’re not going for sheer verisimilitude -- which is fine, because the show would be a lot less funny if they did.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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