Why can't the government manage its workforce?

The past year was not one for easy resolutions. The year began with talk of a government shutdown and/or a furlough for federal workers. Neither transpired, but the underlying budget impasse remains unresolved, with the recent failure of the supercommittee to agree on budget reductions serving as additional evidence that our political process is broken.

But the budget battles have also raised two troubling questions about the state of government operations that, in light of the need for spending cuts, cannot be ignored for long.

1. Why can’t the federal government manage its workforce? At several points throughout the year, lawmakers entertained the idea of cutting the federal workforce, by as much as 20 percent in one case. So far, no proposal has gotten any traction. One reason is that lawmakers and federal officials alike have no clear sense of where they would begin cutting. Perhaps the workforce is too big, perhaps not. But the more fundamental problem is that the distribution and composition of the workforce are not well-aligned with the missions of federal agencies. That needs to change, whether cuts are made or not.

2. Do agencies grasp the importance of their contractors? The Obama administration has made a concerted effort to better define — and limit — the role of contractor personnel. Without a doubt, that is a much-needed course correction. But federal officials often talk as if the use of contractors was discretionary, and that often isn’t true. The federal hiring process, however much it might have improved, makes it difficult for agencies to hire people with the skills they need in a timely fashion. As long as that’s the case, contract employees will be essential to the day-to-day work of many agencies — even if that work isn’t classified as a critical function. Like it or not, it’s a blended workforce and it must be managed as such.

Until the Obama administration gets a handle on those two issues, any efforts to “rightsize” the government have little chance of succeeding.

John Monroe
Federal Computer Week

About the Author

John Stein Monroe, a former editor-in-chief of FCW, is the custom editorial director for the 1105 Public Sector Media Group.

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

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group