Cost-cutters target fed workers again

Are the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform's recommendations really cost effective?

Only in the government can one ask a question and get two opposite answers that are both correct.

For example, ask how the federal government can cut expenses to help reduce its ballooning deficit, as President Barack Obama did when he created the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and you would be equally correct whether you said part of the solution is to decrease the number of federal workers or increase the ranks of certain employees. Come again?

The less-is-cheaper approach in the form of a three-year freeze on federal salaries and a 10 percent reduction in the federal workforce is one of the many measures that commission co-chairmen Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, and Alan Simpson, former Republican senator from Wyoming, included in their draft recommendations released earlier this month.

On the other hand, some experts say the government could save plenty of money on big IT projects if it had more of the right kind of employees, specifically procurement and program management specialists who can make sure agencies buy and develop new systems more wisely. That’s one of the conclusions of a report last month from industry group TechAmerica Foundation.

And that’s not just industry’s opinion. As part of its plan to save $100 billion in five years by being a smarter buyer, the Defense Department will continue to boost the ranks of its acquisition workforce, which had been severely downsized in the 1990s, reports Matthew Weigelt on

So once again, government workers find themselves at the center of political debates about the best way to make the government more cost-effective. The Washington Post's Joe Davidson writes that the debt commission’s proposals mark a shift in the atmosphere surrounding the federal workforce.

“With their bipartisan pedigree, offered by two men who aren't gunning for quick headlines, the draft proposals give an increased level of support and legitimacy for some of the points Republicans have made about federal pay and staffing,” Davidson writes. In recent months, Republicans have called for cutting or freezing the size of the federal workforce and employees' compensation, Davidson notes.

But the math behind the proposed workforce cuts doesn’t add up, specifically when it comes to maintaining government service levels, writes Stan Collender on the "Capital Gains and Games" blog. He points out that pay cuts will prompt some experienced workers to quit in search of better opportunities, which will make conditions worse for the leaner staffs left behind.

The “Bowles-Simpson [draft] projects substantial savings based on the expectation that a less experienced and much smaller federal workforce will be more productive and just as effective [as] the more experienced and larger workforce it replaces,” Collender writes. “That makes absolutely no sense.”

With any luck, prudent minds will prevail and workforce adjustments will be made free of political expediency or blunt across-the-board cuts, if changes are made at all. But that might be too much to ask.

“If any of these goals were easy, they would have been accomplished long ago,” writes Brian Wingfield on Forbes’ "Business in the Beltway" blog. “It’s easy for Bowles and Simpson to make these suggestions — they’re not running for anything.”

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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Reader comments

Sat, Jan 1, 2011 JOE GEORGIA

CUT ALL FED EMPOYEE PAY 5% STARTING WITH EMPLOYES MAKING 50K ADD 1% FOR EA 10k above that ( 6% on 60K 9% o 90K ect) cap the cuts at 200K (20%) all employees 200K + would be cut 20%. in this economy if anyone leaves there will be ample qualified people to fill their slot.

Fri, Dec 3, 2010

It's unfortunate that the federal worker, who works for less than the private sector employee, is being made a scapegoat. The federal employees' income is only piecemeal. The debt will remain. It's a desperate action that may very well backlash. I'm not surprised that politicians aren't saying anything about the burrowing of appointees. This is a real waste of money for partisanship and not to benefit the nation.

Wed, Dec 1, 2010 David Texas

My only comment is that as a Federal Manager I have a difficult time hiring and keeping talented employees. The low pay and mediocre benefits are the main reason. I have lost three excellent employees each with over 5 years of experience during 2010 (even with the high unemployment numbers). Each one was able to choose between several private sector jobs that paid at least 30% more and provided better benefits (primarily they no longer had to pay anything for health insurance for themselves or families). Each one of these individuals have told me they are receiving raises for 2011 between 5% and 12% as well. If the Federal Government wants to hire and keep these talented employees we should not be freezing the pay. I also receive offers of positions with much higher pay each year, however have stayed with the Govenment due to the fact that I have many family members living near me and would be required to move out of my area. I also supplement my income with outside consulting work not directly related to my Government job. The pay freeze is a very bad idea as it will lead to the Government having a much less effective work force.

Tue, Nov 23, 2010

If the politicians would cut the fraud, waste and abuse (plus their own salaries and benefits) they wouldn't have to pick on Federal Employees. I see stories like a new system for the FBI's that's $100 million over budget or in the last nine years over $1 billion have been paid to dead people or the millions government has tied up in buildings nobody is using and I have to ask, why not cut this waste and leave us Feds alone with our dinky 1.4% raise!?

Mon, Nov 22, 2010 RayW

Have to laugh at the anon poster who claims that Real Life companies do not give folks early holiday starts (59 minutes early out for the day before a holiday in most places) like some Gov organizations do. In the 8 years I was with LockMart I think I may have had as many holiday early starts as I have had in the 10 years I have been Gov. And AIL/EATON did the same thing a few times when I worked for them. My other Real life jobs I do not really remember, that was 25+ years ago and I was younger and much more foolish. Oh, and as far as the Gov giving an early start for every holiday, we have not had one yet this year at my place, maybe they will for Turkey Day since that is on a Thursday and a big travel day.

Besides, as any good boss knows, the day before a holiday is a partially wasted day anyway, be it a Gov or a Real Life job, we get some work done, but not like a normal day. *UNLESS* there is something critical going on like when Desert Storm was hot and my co-workers (a Real Life company) were doing catch up work for the boys in the sand while I was back on active duty (a Gov job of sorts I guess :) ).

What is really sad about the Gov wannabes/haters and the Gov workers posting here, the folks who matter probably will not see any of this, just what the power brokers want them to see.

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