While an advocacy group pushes agencies to hire executives from the outside, the Bush administration goes in the opposite direction.
Early this year, the Partnership for Public Service, an organization devoted to the ideal of encouraging people to work in government, unveiled an initiative to convince baby boomers to consider "encore careers" with federal agencies.
The idea behind the effort was simple: to use one asset-a group of people who have reached the heights of their private sector careers and have a gnawing desire to give back to their country-to solve another problem: that the federal government apparently is about to have more senior-level openings than it can fill with civil servants currently working their way through the pipeline.
But actually implementing such a plan on a wide scale will be anything but simple. First, there's the problem of convincing private sector types that government is the place to go to make a difference. After all, the nonprofit sector is increasingly popular among those with a sense of civic duty, and volunteer work is always an option for those who already have earned a comfortable retirement. Then there's the whole issue of getting agencies to be more receptive to hiring candidates from outside the federal ranks. As the Partnership for Public Service itself notes, at the midcareer level (GS-12 to 15), federal agencies fill only 15 percent of their vacancies with external candidates, and less than half the openings are even available to applicants from outside government.
It's easy to dismiss that as federal closed-mindedness borne of a desire to keep the civil service an exclusive club for lifelong bureaucrats. But there's another explanation: When it comes to developing and implementing federal programs, and making sure they actually work, government experience is a highly valuable commodity.
That's a lesson President Bush seems to have learned in his second term in office, particularly since his party's stinging defeat at the polls last November. His first major postelection decision was to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, a career CIA officer who rose through the ranks to become director in the George H.W. Bush administration. Gates, in turn, asked retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, a highly experienced intelligence officer, to become undersecretary of Defense for intelligence.
And that was just the beginning. In early January, Bush shifted John Negroponte-whose 40 years of experience in government had already earned him the post of Director of National Intelligence-over to the No. 2 slot at the State Department. To replace Negroponte, Bush tapped retired Navy Vice Adm. Mike McConnell, a former director of the National Security Agency.
Then, after announcing his new Iraq policy, Bush named Ryan C. Crocker, a career Foreign Service officer since 1971, to serve as U.S. ambassador to the country. Crocker's career includes not only previous stints in Iraq, but service in Iran, Qatar and Egypt.
At the same time, Timothy Carney, a retired career Foreign Service officer, was asked to take over reconstruction efforts in the country. During his 32-year government career, Carney served as ambassador to Haiti and Sudan, held diplomatic posts in Vietnam and Cambodia, and served a stint in Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Minerals after the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003.
Even before the elections, Bush had sought out leaders with extensive federal résumés to lead key agencies: David Paulison at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden at the CIA. And that was after naming highly experienced federal officials to head the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA earlier in his second term.
All of which begs the following question about the Partnership for Public Service initiative: Wouldn't it make more sense to try to convince senior federal employees to stay in their jobs until their agencies can develop the bench strength they need? These managers and executives already have a public service ethic, and something else that's even more valuable-the expertise and wisdom that comes with decades of working in government operations. As President Bush is learning, experience, it turns out, is worth something.