- The Washington Times - Monday, October 8, 2001

In the last presidential campaign, the candidates and their surrogates argued heatedly about the state of "readiness" in this country. At that time of comparative innocence, readiness was seen as a purely military matter; whether our armed forces had the people, training and equipment necessary to perform the missions they could reasonably anticipate. It was a healthy and productive debate because it focused the nation on the need to ensure a qualified, well-equipped work force in this crucial sector.

In retrospect, this debate was far too narrow. As the events of Sept. 11 made all too clear, civilian agencies that deal with emergencies must also be at a constant state of readiness. Less obvious but equally important is that all government agencies, even those that have nothing to do with emergency response, should also be manned, trained and equipped at all times to undertake their missions.

Understaffing at the U.S. Department of Agriculture could lead to food safety deaths and disasters. Less dramatic, but equally important, a Social Security Administration unable to do its job would touch and tangle the lives of every American.

Demographic trends have made civilian readiness increasingly difficult over the last decade and signs point to the problem worsening.

In the next three years, more than half of the federal work force will be eligible to retire, including 70 percent of the government's senior executives. At the same time, fewer and fewer talented young people and midcareer professionals are choosing government service as a career option.

In the midst of the current national crisis, this seems hard to believe. Americans are hurt, angry and proud. We are a compassionate people, given to action and looking for ways to help each other.

Across the country, newspapers chronicle the FBI's hunt for suspects. Television captures the images of federal search and rescue teams and Army Corps of Engineer workers digging through rubble and testing the integrity of buildings. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines prepare to deploy overseas to fight terrorism. These dramatic images are an effective call to service. Anecdotes and news reports suggest that since that unthinkable Tuesday, interest in federal jobs has surged.

This is, of course, a positive sign. But it is not a long-term solution to the looming work force drain that will tax our government's readiness capabilities.

Hard as it is to believe today, there will eventually be a tomorrow when this horror is not what we go to sleep thinking about and wake up to face. Today the American Red Cross has more donated blood than it needs, but sometime in the next few years, the Red Cross will once again have to cajole Americans into rolling up their sleeves.

By that time, it seems unlikely we will have managed to replace the 38 percent of Department of Health and Human Services workers, or the more than 50 percent of Defense Department acquisition specialists, who will be eligible to retire by 2005. Certainly we will not have even begun to make a dent in the work force losses of agencies like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid that played less visible roles in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Truly ensuring civilian government readiness in the 21st century will take a sustained effort to recruit and retain qualified people to government service. I recently agreed to serve on the board of governors of a newly formed nonpartisan, nonprofit organization called the Partnership for Public Service, which has been created to spearhead this campaign.

The Partnership recognizes as the military has for years that the government has to target potential talent and actively recruit it. As the military has been offering "the toughest job you'll ever love," the federal government must appeal to those seeking a challenge and a chance to make a difference.

Just as Congress has long recognized that military service should be rewarded with scholarships and other benefits, so too should it recognize that it needs to search for ways to reward those who opt out of the private sector. The military has learned that signing up should be made as easy as possible. The federal government should follow this lead, relaxing some of the Byzantine rules and application procedures that keep willing people out of government service.

After the tragedies, the Office of Personnel Management wisely recognized the urgent need for readiness and relaxed some of those rules temporarily.

The trick now will be making permanent changes that recognize the need for civilian readiness in calmer times.

P.X. Kelley, a retired Marine Corps general and Marine commandant, is a member of the board of governors for the Partnership for Public Service.

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