COMMENTARY

The dollars and sense of rightsizing the federal workforce

William R. Dougan is president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Since Republicans were swept into the majority in the House last November, there has been a great deal of conversation about debts, deficits and the proper size of government. Predictably, many of the discussions have focused on reducing the size of the federal workforce, be it through attrition, hiring freezes, buyouts or some combination of the three.

Opinions vary greatly on where to make the cuts and by how much, but most propose reducing the workforce in an ambiguous and oversimplified fashion.

In May, Congress considered various proposals at a hearing titled “Rightsizing the Federal Workforce.” In my testimony, I offered one basic principle to guide any potential effort to reduce the workforce: Government is not measured by the number of employees; it is measured in dollars and cents. Any proposal that reduces the number of federal workers at an agency without a corresponding reduction in the agency’s mandate will shift that work to contractors, who often cost more and operate with less transparency. If lawmakers are intent on reducing the size of government, it is imperative that cost be the ultimate measure.

A second principle beckons Congress to look at the entirety of the federal payroll rather than just federal employees. Today, the federal contract workforce stands at about 10.5 million, which is roughly five times the size of the federal civilian workforce. By focusing exclusively on federal employees, lawmakers are excluding about 80 percent of the positions funded through federal agencies. There must be a shared sacrifice by government and industry if lawmakers are serious about downsizing.

A third principle requires our elected officials to be specific about which services they want to cut and which they do not. The worst mistake that lawmakers could make would be to implement a broad-brushed, one-size-fits-all scheme to reduce the workforce without first considering the impact to the vital services on which the American people rely. Why risk losing thousands of critically needed Veterans Affairs Department doctors and nurses, Border Patrol agents or food safety inspectors when we should be spending our time looking for real cost savings in wasteful corporate subsidies or legislators’ pork-barrel projects?

Finally, it is imperative that Congress work with federal employees and their union representatives to find a solution to our budget issues. No one understands the everyday operations of federal agencies the way their employees do. By tapping the vast institutional knowledge of 2.1 million dedicated federal workers, it is possible to save billions of dollars. It would be foolish to hand down cost-cutting decisions from Capitol Hill without first consulting the people who do the work.

Given the realities of our federal budget situation, downsizing is appropriate at some federal agencies. However, lawmakers are going to have to make some tough choices about which programs to reshape, scale back or discontinue. A nonstrategic approach to cutting costs that simply mandates significant personnel reductions will fail to achieve savings and will cause wastefulness and disarray at numerous agencies.

On the other hand, rightsizing the workforce could result in hiring more VA doctors and nurses, Customs and Border Protection officers, and people to fill other critically understaffed federal positions.

It is essential that the principles outlined above become the foundation of a thoughtful and deliberate analysis before proposing any downsizing, upsizing or rightsizing.

About the Author

William R. Dougan is president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

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Reader comments

Mon, Jun 27, 2011 Keyport Washington

As long as human beings continue to live there will be the risk that they will become injured or diseased to the point where they are unable to care for themselves and their families. It is only just that the society that benefits from the risks, that we all take, provide the health care, housing, food and education necessary to support those who cannot support themselves and help us all to acquire the ability to be the best that we can be as a member of that society. Money not spent to improve the human condition around the world and at home will be spent to punish the forgotten for misguided attempts to secure their just rights.

Mon, Jun 20, 2011

I have no problem with federal workers like myself or contractors, which I have been in the past. I have 6 years of higher education and make $18.00 an hour at my federal job. Compare that to my cousins, all of whom dropped out of highschool to work at the Jeep plant making 3 times what I make. They at least work for it. To get serious about reducing the budget we need to look at social programs that have expanded beyond their original intent, like SSI, and welfare that pays more to sit on your butt at home than work. In 2010 the cost of "social programs" exceede all taxes taken in by the government. We cannot fix the budget until we fix that.

Fri, Jun 17, 2011

The problem with some of those people defending the government workers is that they believe that all government workers are "doing a necessary job." At best that is an opnion. Processing Social Security claims would not be "necessary" if we did not have a massive Social Security program. Let people take care of themselves instead of having the government do this function at everyone's expense and this job would definately not be "necessary". DOD is no longer the largest fed agency, DHHS is and all they do is take people's money (not voluntarily given), take a cut out of it for themselves, then give out the rest to other people, many who did not earn it. That is definately not "doing a necessary job" according to many people - including the signers of the Constitution. At least these contractors are taking jobs put out by the government, usually by bidding on them against others so their profit margin is not "huge" or someone else would take the jobs from them in the biding process. Many Federal employees never even think about the big profits they get (including huge retirements and huge benefits including more holidays, vacation and sick leave relative to what most contractors ever get). They just think that they are entitled to them and everyone else is supposed to work for no profit. I know because I have worked plenty of years on both sides and I find that many Feds who have never worked much ouside the government are very ignorant about what contractors really make after all their expenses and down time.

Fri, Jun 17, 2011 dp dc

Interesting how someone rants against the rant against govt workers (I do agree that the rants are wrong), then turns around and rants against contractors, who also earn their paychecks "like every other employed American citizen -- by doing a necessary job." Anyone who says contractors cost the govt more than employees does not know business and does not know Federal contracting. As much of the discussion in FCW has shown, it is very hard to pin down a legitimate comparison, mostly because the Feds do not break out their costs as contractors are required to do. In the end, both have a legitimate, valuable role to play. Ranting against one or the other does little to add to a solution.

Fri, Jun 17, 2011 Steve

Good article, full of lots of common sense ideas. That's why the politicians won't do anything like this.

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