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Be honest now: Is the federal workforce over-staffed?

Guest entry by Federal Computer Week editor John Monroe.

When Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) introduced a bill in January that would cut the federal workforce by 10 percent, we received numerous comments from already-over-burdened readers who feared they would be handed even more work. But some of out readers offered alternative perspectives.

The basic issue, as they see it, is that the staffing at many agencies is out of synch with the work actually being done. They agreed with Chris Edwards, editor of the CATO Institute’s website downsizinggovernment.org, who described such cuts as “the low-hanging fruit” at a time when budget cuts are needed.

Some readers had particular low-hanging fruit in mind.

“I say they ask each federal employee to take a look around them and identify the dead wood,” wrote an anonymous reader. “There is a GS-15 step 10 in my group that plays games on his computer all day and steals $155,500 from the taxpayers, annually.”

But how do we reconcile such comments with others from readers who say they don’t have enough hours in the day to get their jobs done? One possibility, suggested by several readers, is that the problem is not in the rank-and-file of the workforce, but in management.

One reader put it this way: “Picture one employee working under several managers whose positions are director, deputy director, assistant deputy director, manager, assistant manager, supervisor, assistant supervisor, and so on down the chain of command. These management positions earn up to $200,000 and up.”

“When a private sector company re-organizes, the first thing they do is cut the middle management,” another reader added.

But others are not convinced.

“Haven't we been around this block a few times over the past 20 years?” a reader asked. “And each and every time, a story or event will take place that has Congress screaming at an understaffed, underfunded agency to ‘fix my constituent's problems!!!’ Of course, the ones screaming at us to fix said problems are usually the same folks that voted to cut our funding and staffing levels.”

What do you think? Putting aside the current political bickering, does the federal workforce need to be downsized or realigned? Short of cross-the-board cuts, are there particular areas in the workforce that could use some trimming? In particular, what is the state of the IT workforce?

Post your comments here. This summer we will publish a selection of the most thoughtful responses in a print edition of FCW.

Posted on Apr 14, 2011 at 12:18 PM

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Sat, Oct 1, 2011

Workforce centers see no clients. Clients come in and are directed to the computer room where they do their own job search, resumes, or filing for unemployment. STAFF DOES NOTHING! But they also say that they are not easy to get rid off...And then they have several - 4-5 Work Experience workers there also! Usually from the 55 and older programs. ENOUGH ALready!

Fri, Sep 30, 2011 James Robertson florida

I have been googleing for 2 days on the subject of "is our varying gov'ts overstaffed in workers". By about 8 to 1, everything written on the subject says YES! From county, state, and federal levels. Gov't has grown almost 20 fold in most states and federally. Big government federalism seems to have blossumed over the years as varying bureacracys add employees to manage some redistribution of something the public sector doesn't need, say oversight on what to feed their cattle or pets, how many shots they must have, just garbage, and are paid big bucks for their expertise, even though no college is accredited with permission from the state to teach such drivel or offer a degree. The hiring is done to lower unemployment issues in the economy and helps them look good for a while, until the people catch them, with hands out and discover it benefits someone who mostly bought their position in congress, senate, or president. Its really laughable to public employees while the payer (private sector) curses then cries.

Wed, Apr 27, 2011 Dave K

The entire question is off target! Various agencies are overmanned or undermanned based on what Congress wanted to do... and what additional tasks have been levied over the years. The real question is this: Is this Agency a legitimate Federal function, and is it authorized by the Constitution? If the answer is "no," there's an easy cut, not of a percentage of personnel, but of an entire agency.

Tue, Apr 26, 2011 Virginia

The answer is not a simple yes or no - it is a depends and I agree with others that an "across the board" employee reduction never works. There are some agencies and departments within agencies that are grossly overstaffed and others that are grossly understaffed but when you look at the root cause of this lopsided picture you can see that this has more to do with matching the right skills to the tasks at hand, lack of leadership, lack of clear and concise goals and objectives as well as a plan to accomplish the required activities. Another reasons for this is constantly changing priorities as each administration changes and the Federal Government's inability to be "agile" in response to these changes. It is next to impossible to remove anyone from their position even for gross negligence and it is equally difficult to hire qualified candidates for open positions (the process is onerous and time consuming for the hiring managers and the candidates). This is not something to be fixed with a "one size fits all". It is going to take a "grass roots" effort within each of the Agencies to truly fix this problem. But there is a question of "why would anyone be motivated to fix this problem?"

Wed, Apr 20, 2011

The problem is not simple one nor is it a problem anyone wants to take on because of it's unpopularity. Yes, the government is over staffed in some areas and under staffed in others. This guarantees there is no across the board solution and will require some careful thought as how to address the situation. Applying an across the board directive to cut staff, salaries, whatever, would not have the desired affect. I don't have a good solution but I do know it needs to be looked at in more detail, forget the directives for across the board cuts for the DOD, DOE, DOI, etc. It's not that simple of a problem. IT faces the same issues as the rest of the government, there are dead beats (bottom all the way to the top) and there are those that are kicking butt. In the private world, these dead beats would not stand a chance of keeping their job so why are they able to keep it in the government? I don't know, it baffles me. Most I can figure is they are avoiding the spotlight but why is a spotlight cast on them for doing what is right? It is the craziest thing I have ever seen. And honestly, does a technician need to be paid 48k a year plus to perform desk top upgrades and install patches? I don't think so. This is a two year degree job at best(desktop patches, upgrades, etc). There are a lot of IT staff who deserve the pay because of their responsibilites. My experience in IT in the public sector over seeing nation field services and server administration using sub contractors has exposed some major areas of concern for all of IT, the diverse education and experience levels of candidates doing the same job. All of IT does not deserve the big salaries. A computer tech just doing patches on desktops in the private world is not going to find a job paying more than 30k/year (in my area, 24k at best) without some real experience or a degree higher than an associates. This same experience, education issue is found throughout all of the government. Engineering is another area. You want an Electrical Engineer to start at a GS-7 and be part of a team responsible for the operation & maintainence of our infrastructure, dams, sub stations, power plants, etc? You will get the bottom of the barrel applicants. Or how about a GS11 EE? In the private world this same engineer can find a job making at least 70k and you want to pay 50k? I don't see EE's anywhere being over paid(ST?). On the other hand, I do see other engineering fields being over paid, compared to the private world, most notably, entry or less than 10 years experience as civil engineers (no disrespect at all). So just speaking on IT level and engineering, there are clearly no easy answers.

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