When President Kennedy issued his call to young Americans to join Uncle Sam’s civilian army and to help America be a better nation, his speech was a success. The federal government employs a large number of baby boomers, many of whom were influenced by the President’s appeal to patriotism. After completing college, completing a two-year stint in the Army and having finished the course work for an advanced degree in political science, I studied for the federal entrance exam and took it three times before getting a near perfect score. With veterans’ preference added, I found myself with a government job and could not have been happier at this good fortune.
As one of those who watch Kennedy’s speech on a black and white television set and felt the power of his words, joining the federal government was a badge of honor and that I had an obligation to do the best job I could to earn my money and to help the federal government provide quality service to the taxpayers paying my salary. I was making about $7500 per year. It was hard to believe I could make a salary that high, did not have to work weekends or late at night, received a number of paid holidays, health insurance with the bulk of the premiums paid for and the prestige of working for the federal civil service. Friends from graduate school often made more money but they were working very long hours, weekends, and did not get the holidays or have the job security or the prestige of a federal job.
My experience at a variety of agencies confirmed my expectations. I met and worked with large numbers of exceptional people who were motived to work hard and do a good job. Many of them are still working and have become successful high ranking federal employees. I am not aware of any of them that have a blemish on their federal service–let alone an indictment for a crime.
A criminal conviction or indictment of a federal employee was very rare. It was unthinkable that a co-worker or colleague would be engaged in activity that could lead to jail or an indictment.
If or when a federal employee was caught and convicted of a crime, it was not widely reported. Perhaps the press unwittingly went along with the notion that federal employees were a cut above the average American and that the public could be assured that their government was in good hands and consisted of hard-working, honest people.
Something has changed. It may be that the Internet provides better dissemination of news. Unfortunately, my hunch is that is goes beyond a lack of information and, instead, reflects changes in our society and changes in the federal hiring process.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development runs a program called "Operation FedRent." HUD describes this program as "an anti-fraud effort designed to expose and prosecute federal government employees who misrepresent their incomes to obtain rental subsidies, effectively denying housing assistance to eligible families."
Apparently, the agency suspected there was a problem and that there may be federal employees who would lie, cheat and steal in order to enrich themselves. Unfortunately, it appears their suspicions were justified.
Since April 2006, the agency has obtained 34 indictments, 13 convictions (and counting), and recovered $541,813 so far as a result of this program.
The convictions are not just HUD employees. They are from a variety of agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the State Department, Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Agriculture. Clearly, there are people throughout the government who are willing to take advantage of the federal government’s largesse for their own self-enrichment.
HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson says in a press release that "Operation FedRent is sending a very clear message to federal employees who are defrauding our programs – if you try to game the system, you’ll be found."
Some readers will undoubtedly opine that nothing has changed; that crooks have always been part of the federal workforce. No doubt there were some but it was very rare. Federal agencies did not set up programs specifically to go after corrupt federal workers. Indictments and conviction of federal employees was not common. I applaud HUD for recognizing the problem and working to resolve it. I am no longer as naive or idealistic.
The HUD program is attacking the symptoms but isn’t getting to the heart of the problem. A government that does not have the trust and confidence of those it serves will not be effective. The federal hiring process is broken and needs to be fixed. Federal jobs no longer have the prestige. In fact, many college students do not have a clue how to get a federal job. The impression is that the hiring process is not based on merit or intelligence–but on knowing someone within the system who can pull the levers necessary to hire a new employee. In public administration courses in graduate school, we studied government systems that worked that way; they were usually in third world countries and the governments were corrupt and ineffective and existed to keep a dictator or a political party in power.
The symptoms exemplified with "Operation Fedrent" are already apparent. With the Byzantine federal hiring process, the relaxation of Hatch Act restrictions, and the general perception that a federal job is not for America’s best and brightest, but for those that know someone who can get them hired, we are ensuring America’s future federal government is likely to be less professional, less competent and less honest.