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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