COMMENTARY

Why can't the government manage its workforce?

The past year was not one for easy resolutions. The year began with talk of a government shutdown and/or a furlough for federal workers. Neither transpired, but the underlying budget impasse remains unresolved, with the recent failure of the supercommittee to agree on budget reductions serving as additional evidence that our political process is broken.

But the budget battles have also raised two troubling questions about the state of government operations that, in light of the need for spending cuts, cannot be ignored for long.

1. Why can’t the federal government manage its workforce? At several points throughout the year, lawmakers entertained the idea of cutting the federal workforce, by as much as 20 percent in one case. So far, no proposal has gotten any traction. One reason is that lawmakers and federal officials alike have no clear sense of where they would begin cutting. Perhaps the workforce is too big, perhaps not. But the more fundamental problem is that the distribution and composition of the workforce are not well-aligned with the missions of federal agencies. That needs to change, whether cuts are made or not.

2. Do agencies grasp the importance of their contractors? The Obama administration has made a concerted effort to better define — and limit — the role of contractor personnel. Without a doubt, that is a much-needed course correction. But federal officials often talk as if the use of contractors was discretionary, and that often isn’t true. The federal hiring process, however much it might have improved, makes it difficult for agencies to hire people with the skills they need in a timely fashion. As long as that’s the case, contract employees will be essential to the day-to-day work of many agencies — even if that work isn’t classified as a critical function. Like it or not, it’s a blended workforce and it must be managed as such.

Until the Obama administration gets a handle on those two issues, any efforts to “rightsize” the government have little chance of succeeding.

John Monroe
Editor-in-Chief
Federal Computer Week

About the Author

John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

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