When I ask political appointees of either party what surprises them about government service, one answer consistently comes back: the talent and dedication of the civil servants they are working with.

That's reassuring, of course, but also sad and a bit scary. Sad because their surprise reflects how little many Americans expect of their federal government. Scary because such competence as exists in government is at risk: In the next four years, 600,000 federal jobs - close to one-third of the government - will need to be filled.

That datum is brought to you courtesy of Max Stier, whose Partnership for Public Service has assembled the numbers - a fact that is, Stier is quick to point out, "in itself an indictment" of the government, which does not track the ebb and flow of its workforce in this way. Stier is president and chief executive of the nonprofit, which is dedicated both to attracting talent to the federal government and to making the government a better steward of such talent. And, 100 days into the Obama administration, Stier already worries that a great opportunity is about to be squandered.

The opportunity lies not only in the huge number of looming vacancies, but also in two factors driving young people to consider government jobs: excitement about President Obama, and the fact that nobody but the government is hiring. The federal government, old (one-quarter of the workforce is younger than 40, compared with half in the private sector) and often lumbering, has a chance to become younger, nimbler, and more talented.

But, says Stier, there are a few little problems standing in the way. The government has no strategy for identifying the talent it will need. Its hiring process is a ghastly and, to most young people, incomprehensible swamp. It fails to invest in the development of the people it does hire. And it does not measure or reward managers for how well they deal with those who work for them. "There are tons of people excited," Stier said, but as things stand, "there is no way in hell the right people will get into government."

There is actually one part of government that invests in its people and values them as a resource. "The military does things very differently and very smartly," Stier said.

But on the civilian side, no one feels responsible for making things work better. The Office of Personnel Management hasn't gotten the job done and in any case is not the right address. "No knowledge organization can let HR own talent," Stier said; the executives in each organization have to take charge. But political appointees spend an average of 18 to 24 months in any given job; they want to get something done on their watch, not fix the culture for the long term.

That means only a president can turn things around, and only by dint of constant and aggressive effort. The Bush administration talked about measuring and rewarding performance; a good idea, but one that was implemented so ideologically - combining pay-for-performance with a reduction of collective bargaining and appeals rights - that it alienated much of the workforce, Stier says.

The Bush administration also emphasized competition and contracting out, but, Stier says, without a strategic vision of what work should be done in-house - something still missing across the government. Federal spending on contracting skyrocketed from $222 billion in 2001 to $532 billion in 2008. Which figure makes more sense? Nobody knows. (Meanwhile, the federal workforce as a share of population is near historic lows - about two-thirds of 1 percent, down from about 1 percent from 1960 through 1990.) And Bush, with congressional prodding, spent huge energy on reorganization - welcome, DHS and DNI, to the alphabet soup - instead of on talent and culture.

Now comes the post-Katrina president, promising to make government work again. "There has never been a better time to fix this problem," Stier wrote before the inauguration. He proposed then that Obama send a clear message across the government that "the hiring process is a high priority - that it is not just a personnel issue, but a leadership issue." He should order each agency to review its process, channel resources to the task of hiring, and hold managers accountable for getting it right.

Three months later, during a recent visit to the Washington Post, Stier noted that he isn't encouraged. "He's saying the right things, but making some of the same old mistakes," Stier said. In spending the vast stimulus package, for example, the administration is beefing up its ability to catch miscreants but not its capacity to prevent problems.

"I don't want to judge too quickly - but they don't have much time," Stier said. "President Obama said he wants to make government cool again. Well, he needs to turn that into a plan."

Fred Hiatt is the Washington Post's editorial page editor.