The challenges of including contractors in the federal workforce size debate

What’s the right size of the federal workforce?

Stumped? You’re not the only one.

Lawmakers recently debated the question during a hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s federal workforce subcommittee. Not surprisingly, the group reached no final answer.

What did come out of the hearing, however, was the notion that any discussions about trimming the federal workforce must take contract employees into account. In other words, Republicans and Democrats seemed to agree that the government’s workforce isn’t limited to civil servants.

But it won’t be easy for Congress to count and possibly cut the number of contract employees — for a variety of reasons.

Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica, said many agencies don’t maintain inventories of contract personnel. “Across the government, you don’t have a good sense of what you’re dealing with” in terms of the quantity of contractors, he said.

Likewise, Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, said the number of contractors supporting an agency changes frequently and any calculation is ultimately just a snapshot in time.

So the difficulty of counting contract employees, unlike full-time federal employees, is one challenge. Another obstacle is that many experts believe the notion of cutting contractors is as misguided as Republicans’ growing determination to reduce the number of feds, which now stands at 2.1 million.

“We don’t endorse headcounts of feds, and we’re not going to endorse it for contractor employees,” said John Threlkeld, assistant legislative director at the American Federation of Government Employees. “We don’t think it’s a good idea to make arbitrary reductions in the number of employees in either workforce.”

Threlkeld said bills introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) would shrink the size of the workforce through attrition. They represent the arbitrary approach that labor unions oppose.

Issa’s legislation (H.R. 2114) would cut 10 percent of the government workforce by the start of fiscal 2015 by allowing one federal employee to be hired to replace every three who retire or leave their jobs for other reasons.

Threlkeld said that approach to workforce reduction would force agencies to hire more contractors at a higher cost, which is what happened in the mid-1990s after the implementation of a federal downsizing initiative.

Issa, probably foreseeing such criticism, included a provision in his bill that seeks to limit an increase in contracts. However, the bill also includes an exemption “for cases in which a cost comparison demonstrates that such contracts would be to the financial advantage of the government.” How that provision will be interpreted is anyone’s guess.

Finding the right balance

Meanwhile, other experts have stepped back from the legislative proposals and political rhetoric to make the broader point that lawmakers are taking the wrong approach.

“You can’t effectively discuss changing the size of the government workforce, whether government employees or contractors, without looking at the underlying mission” of the government, Hodgkins said. “You can’t look at this in isolation and just say we’re going to reduce numbers.”

He added that arguments over the size of the workforce don’t make sense unless lawmakers and the executive branch come to some agreement about what the government should and — more importantly — should not be doing.

“If you just want to reduce the numbers, you’re also faced with reducing the full set of capabilities an office or agency is bringing to bear,” he said.

Instead of putting a cap on the number of feds or contractors across the board, Soloway said agencies should be evaluated on an individual basis to determine the appropriate balance of employees. He added that contractor reductions are bound to happen as agencies’ budgets are cut.

All of that suggests that the question about the right size of government is not the one Congress should be asking. Sources say that if lawmakers are interested in more than simply scoring political points, the conversation about the workforce must be more strategic and focused on eliminating redundancies and taking advantage of IT to improve efficiency.

About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.

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