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 FCW.com.

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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