The challenges of including contractors in the federal workforce size debate

What’s the right size of the federal workforce?

Stumped? You’re not the only one.

Lawmakers recently debated the question during a hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s federal workforce subcommittee. Not surprisingly, the group reached no final answer.

What did come out of the hearing, however, was the notion that any discussions about trimming the federal workforce must take contract employees into account. In other words, Republicans and Democrats seemed to agree that the government’s workforce isn’t limited to civil servants.

But it won’t be easy for Congress to count and possibly cut the number of contract employees — for a variety of reasons.

Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica, said many agencies don’t maintain inventories of contract personnel. “Across the government, you don’t have a good sense of what you’re dealing with” in terms of the quantity of contractors, he said.

Likewise, Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, said the number of contractors supporting an agency changes frequently and any calculation is ultimately just a snapshot in time.

So the difficulty of counting contract employees, unlike full-time federal employees, is one challenge. Another obstacle is that many experts believe the notion of cutting contractors is as misguided as Republicans’ growing determination to reduce the number of feds, which now stands at 2.1 million.

“We don’t endorse headcounts of feds, and we’re not going to endorse it for contractor employees,” said John Threlkeld, assistant legislative director at the American Federation of Government Employees. “We don’t think it’s a good idea to make arbitrary reductions in the number of employees in either workforce.”

Threlkeld said bills introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) would shrink the size of the workforce through attrition. They represent the arbitrary approach that labor unions oppose.

Issa’s legislation (H.R. 2114) would cut 10 percent of the government workforce by the start of fiscal 2015 by allowing one federal employee to be hired to replace every three who retire or leave their jobs for other reasons.

Threlkeld said that approach to workforce reduction would force agencies to hire more contractors at a higher cost, which is what happened in the mid-1990s after the implementation of a federal downsizing initiative.

Issa, probably foreseeing such criticism, included a provision in his bill that seeks to limit an increase in contracts. However, the bill also includes an exemption “for cases in which a cost comparison demonstrates that such contracts would be to the financial advantage of the government.” How that provision will be interpreted is anyone’s guess.

Finding the right balance

Meanwhile, other experts have stepped back from the legislative proposals and political rhetoric to make the broader point that lawmakers are taking the wrong approach.

“You can’t effectively discuss changing the size of the government workforce, whether government employees or contractors, without looking at the underlying mission” of the government, Hodgkins said. “You can’t look at this in isolation and just say we’re going to reduce numbers.”

He added that arguments over the size of the workforce don’t make sense unless lawmakers and the executive branch come to some agreement about what the government should and — more importantly — should not be doing.

“If you just want to reduce the numbers, you’re also faced with reducing the full set of capabilities an office or agency is bringing to bear,” he said.

Instead of putting a cap on the number of feds or contractors across the board, Soloway said agencies should be evaluated on an individual basis to determine the appropriate balance of employees. He added that contractor reductions are bound to happen as agencies’ budgets are cut.

All of that suggests that the question about the right size of government is not the one Congress should be asking. Sources say that if lawmakers are interested in more than simply scoring political points, the conversation about the workforce must be more strategic and focused on eliminating redundancies and taking advantage of IT to improve efficiency.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 7, 2011 Gorgonzola

In the article's quotes, there's the whiff of feds and contractors linking arms to kick the can down hill. Normally playing a zero-sum game with each other, it is now patty-cake. Both workforces are definitely against cuts out of the total pie that Prof. Light of Brookings and NYU rather easily toted up. To say the census of feds and contractors is undoable is ridiculous. More dithering, more waste, more time going by while the citizens and taxpayers get less and less for their dollars.

Thu, Jul 7, 2011 elad dc

Amazing -- last time I checked, one is supposed to first figure out what is the task/job/requirement? Next one figures out what resources (which also includes skills, knowledge as well as the people with said skills and knowledge), time and materials it takes to accomplish those things. Oh, and then one needs to prioritize levels of criticality, whether the task/job/requirement is essential, important or nice to have. Then factor in the cost. The first thing to go should be all the "nice to have's" -- which would probably eliminate a lot of what is referred to as "pork" though it may really negatively affect the politicians' popularity and ability to get reelected. Next, look at the "important" items. Look for redundancies and outdated requirements (laws, regulations,etc.) and related processes. Reduce, redesign, consolidate or eliminate these. (Is USDA still paying owners of specific types of land not to grow crops when there hasn't been a farm in said locations for 10 or more years?) Or, how about the "unneeded bridge to nowhere" up in Alaska? Is Dept of Labor and Immigration still duplicating certain processes for bringing in temporary migrant workers, or did that process finally get streamlined? And the list goes on and on. Oh, by the way, "It gets in the way of business/profit-making" should not take priority over ensuring the health, welfare and well-being of the environment or the people. Reference the contractor issue -- many of these congress members "speak with forked tongue," -- They cry "Let's reduce the Federal Workforce, but don't get in the way of hiring contractors (outsourcing) to do the full-time tasks/requirements that clearly still need to be executed." Either the task/job/requirement is valid, or it is not.

Thu, Jul 7, 2011

Should have not used COR/COTR - Its apparent the articles author and the legislative staff working this issue is clueless to their roll and function – really amusing and at the same time horrifying to realize what we have leading us…

Thu, Jul 7, 2011

If you have a fixed price contract, you don't have billable hours. Isn't fixed price the preferred method????

Thu, Jul 7, 2011

To Its really not that difficult ... how do you count effort for projects that are not billed by the hour? A contract for a road or a plane for example may not tell you the hour involved in the fixed price when they are competed.

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