Employee numbers matter less than the work done, expert says

Rather than focusing on headcount cuts, the federal government should look closely at the workforce and evaluate what positions justify a refill after the baby boomers retire, according to a government reform expert.

In a Feb. 6 presentation hosted by the Coalition for Effective Change and the Partnership for Public Service, Dr. Paul Light kicked off the breakfast series with a discussion on government reforms and the state of the civil service in 2012.

The anticipated retirement wave of baby boomers means agencies will be tempted to fill the vacant positions. It's the most “natural thing” to do, Light said, but is far from the best approach to take.

“We keep moving the hierarchy up, we keep sucking jobs upward into the layers that already exist and the jobs that already exist,” said Light, who is a professor at New York University’s Robert E. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “We’re not taking advantage of the opportunity to say, ‘Wait a second, is this job really necessary?’”

Light is the latest in a line of experts urging an emphasis on results in government. Jody Thompson, co-founder of the results-only work environment (ROWE)  that promotes an emphasis on outcomes rather than the details of how employees do their work, has argued that  the current 9-to-5 work schedule begs for an overhaul.

As federal agencies are looking to replenish their staffs, attention should be less on the actual size of the workforce and more on the resources, Light said. “Stop talking about headcount,” he said. “It’s just a ridiculous, useless measure of the strength of the federal workforce. It’s just nonsense. We should talk about the total amount of money available for human capital and work off that.”

One of the more pressing issues federal agencies are grappling with is the challenge to attract and retain new talent, especially the younger generation. In the early 1970s, graduates of major public policy schools opted for government careers; today, the public sector route is considered by many to be a last-resort option, Light said.

“The federal government, I think, is an employer of last resort, and generally, a negligent employer,” he said, citing lack of training and growth opportunities and issues of fairness in pay and promotion as some of the reasons young people shun government careers.

“I think there are a lot of reasons why young people who want to make a difference have discovered over time the nonprofit sector and are investing heavily in social entrepreneurship and moving toward the private sector,” he said. 


 

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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