Book disputes mythical benefits of downsizing

It has become a mantra for Washington, D.C., politicians: Downsizing is happening; downsizing is good; long live downsizing.

The idea that smaller government is easier on the federal wallet and forces government to become more efficient is attractive to politicians, who can sell themselves as opponents of government waste to the constituents back home.

But Paul Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, aims to burst that bubble. Light argues in his new book, The True Size of Government, that the evidence does not support the tenet that downsizing is good for government. According to his book, the federal work force is not shrinking; it is ballooning, with government employees being replaced with contract employees.

The result, he said, constitutes the "most significant reshaping of the federal hierarchy in American administrative history."

And it casts doubt on the "myth" touted by the Clinton administration, wherein government is providing more on an increasingly smaller budget, he said.

"What is irritating about this to me is that President Clinton says that we have returned to the 1960s in terms of the total size of government, and there's an image of tranquility caused by this," Light said.

One pitfall of the downsizing-is-progress mantra is that "it encourages the public to think that government bureaucrats are wasteful and inefficient, and we can continue to downsize year after year," he said.

The trend has had a significant impact on workers in information technology, which is one of the top five sources for outsourcing in the government, he said.

In part, the high volume of outsourced high-technology work speaks to the fact that "the federal government does not pay competitive salaries for IT professionals, and there is so much capacity [for high-tech contract work] outside of the government," he said.

In 1996, for example, data processing alone generated 46,000 contract jobs, he said. Light estimated that the government has created 5.6 million jobs under federal contracts and another 2.5 million jobs under grants. He said mandates to state and local governments have added another 4.6 million jobs to the federal payroll. In addition, there are about 17 million federal employees.

About 300,000 military and civilian jobs have been axed from the federal budget since the first inauguration of Ronald Reagan, with 40,000 of those jobs being in middle management, Light said.

But the cutting of lower-level white-collar and blue-collar jobs has been especially popular during the Clinton era, he said. For the first time in civil service history, the number of middle-level federal employees exceeds the number of lower-level employees.

Congress and corporations benefit from the acceleration of contracting out federal work, he said. The top 25 government contractors gave $15 million to congressional candidates in the 1996 campaign, Light said, and those contractors spent another $38 million lobbying Congress in the first half of 1997.

Unfortunately, Light said, there is no governmentwide accounting for contract employees. "We know everything down to the shoe size of federal employees," he said. "We don't know a thing about the shadow work force we are hiring through contracts and grants. We should slow down" the pace of downsizing and outsourcing, he said. "The federal government doesn't have a clue as to what happened to its core capacities during the past 10 years. We don't know if things are costing us less or if we're getting better service."

Featured

  • IT Modernization
    Eisenhower Executive Office Building (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

    OMB's user guide to the MGT Act

    The Office of Management and Budget is working on a rules-of-the-road document to cover how agencies can seek and use funds under the MGT Act.

  • global network (Pushish Images/Shutterstock.com)

    As others see us -- a few surprises

    A recent dinner with civil servants from Asia delivered some interesting insights, Steve Kelman writes.

  • FCW Perspectives
    cloud (Singkham/Shutterstock.com)

    A smarter approach to cloud

    Advances in cloud technology are shifting the focus toward choosing the right tool for the job and crafting solutions that truly modernize systems.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.