President Clinton is trying to bring welfare recipients into the federal work force, thereby making successful tax-paying citizens out of those who were formerly unwilling tax burdens. He's doing the right thing. But few people outside the federal government's personnel network realize how difficult this task is. They don't recognize the tightrope of competing considerations that must be crossed to make it succeed.
The federal work force is shrinking. Yet, because people have a tendency not to distinguish among governments, the popular myth that "government is growing" persists. While that may be true for some state and local governments, the federal government is about 300,000 people smaller than it was in 1993 when President Clinton took office - a total reduction of 14 percent.
My own agency, the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), is 48 percent smaller than it was in early 1993. Although some people scoff at the president's claim that "the era of big government is over," his first term was marked by downsizing. This downsizing is essential. While it complicates recruitment, it doesn't make it impossible for new people to come into the work force. Opportunities are created by employees who quit, retire, or otherwise leave federal service.
As OPM director I am fully committed to the key principles of the federal personnel system. We will continue to support and enforce the Veterans Preference Act. We will not set quotas. We must fulfill our legal and moral obligations to displaced federal employees. We will adhere to existing policies and regulations that require successful applicants to be qualified for the federal jobs they enter.
So here's the question: How do we hire welfare recipients into a dwindling work force without violating civil-service regulations designed to assure that people are hired and promoted on existing merit system principles? It's important that we follow our established regulations, because doing so reassures those who worry that the federal government is simply hiring the unqualified for another form of "make work," or welfare under a new guise.
The answer: We do it by identifying jobs we perform that are good first steps on the career ladder, and by doing all we can to assure that those who find themselves on welfare are aware of employment opportunities for which they qualify.
Above all, we are reaching out aggressively to make qualified people aware of opportunities that exist for them in the federal government. We are doing this by enlisting the abilities of our existing managers, particularly by asking the 28 federal executive boards and more than 75 federal executive associations to organize outreach efforts across the US. These executives will bring together state and local welfare organizations with federal agencies to create local systems to assure information reaches people who need it.
Although the federal government is downsizing, we hired 58,000 permanent employees last year and 142,000 temporary workers. Our annual hiring figures indicate we can bring in former welfare recipients without displacing other applicants competing for job openings.
Under the president's plan, we are not altering the requirement that people hired by the federal government be qualified to succeed at the jobs they perform. Neither are we creating a new category of affirmative action nor establishing quotas. We are offering some people without job skills a chance to gain experience and build a base for a working life.
Even so, it is obvious that the total federal civilian work force is a statistical drop in the bucket - about 1.5 percent - of the total number of jobs in existence across the nation. That's why moving people off welfare and putting them to work requires a concerted effort among all employers.
We are giving welfare recipients a typically American opportunity. If they want to succeed, they have a chance to compete, and they have the opportunity to win. That is the fundamental nature not only of our workplace culture, but of much that defines the American experience. We can provide opportunity, we can remove barriers, but we cannot guarantee success. That rests with each of us.
It is in our best national interests for our private and public sectors to get people off welfare and into work. It is economically and socially the right thing to do. Above all, it is a moral imperative. The effort engages what is best in Americans.
* James B. King is director of the US Office of Personnel Management.