Finding Better Feds

ALL four headline-grabbing events in the swelter of this Washington summer share a little noticed common denominator: the need to get better people to work in government.

The four events raising this question are the Waco hearings, Whitewater hearings, Good Ole Boys picnic investigation, and the announcement of President Clinton's affirmative-action review. Here, we'd like to focus only on the quality of personnel and administration involved in each matter.

Waco: Evidence already available about the tragic conflagration outside Waco makes it quite clear that serious mistakes of judgment were made by field staffers and administrators in the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI. Added to the mistakes were the fabrications (i.e., the compelling but apparently false accusation that widespread child abuse was going on within the Branch Davidian compound). This misinformation, plus impatience to close out the long standoff, led to a mistake in Washington that was smaller in scale and repercussion but similar in decision-making to the Bay of Pigs disaster.

Whitewater: The brand new attorney general assigned to make key decisions on Waco, Janet Reno, was being coached by one of the same ''president's men'' who features in the Whitewater matter, Webster Hubbell. Although it's unlikely any new smoking guns will emerge in regard to the fumbling coverup moves at the White House and Treasury, one lesson is clear. A bright new president made the same mistake some equally bright predecessors had made: bringing too many associates from his local political machinery into the White House. It's a natural inclination, but a risky one, to staff the heart of government with pals and pols, who often lack the skill to administer the biggest conglomerate in the nation.

Good Ole Boys Roundup: There was blatant racism at least on the fringes of this Tennessee picnic. If allegations prove accurate that officials from several federal law-enforcement agencies attended, government service will be further tarnished. Period.

Affirmative-action review: This gets to the heart of the question of getting better people in government: Are both fairness and quality possible? We believe the answer is yes. But it can't be done by some kind of numbers game. The answer to getting rid of good ole boy racism, high-level cronyism, or complacent civil servants isn't creating good ole girl or good ole minority pools. The real answer lies in looking for the right qualities of drive, alertness, creativity, and team play in filling every job - and being sure to include women and minorities in each job search. President Clinton's policy directives head gently in that direction. More will be needed.

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