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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Reader comments

Mon, Feb 13, 2012 Tired tired Fed

Me, I do think there should be re-thinking when positions open up. At my agency, position descriptions are ancient - BUT managers don't want to take the work to rewrite them, nor does leadership at top seem to want to rethink agency-wide, what truly is needed. We are being told to in-source BUT also pushed, regardless of training and credentials to 'know everything' about every aspect of our increasingly blurry mission, and to spend an incredible amount of time in training if we work with contract-funded projects, though that certification is not recognized outside government. We are told there will be lots more hiring due to insourcing BUT they have not yet defined what will be insourced and are already hiring? As for junior staff, sorry but at our agency the pendulum has swung perhaps a little too far in doing all possible to retain people because they are younger -- get into one of those internships, move into a job without the complicated process a well-qualified member of the public would have to pursue, and you are pretty certain to get bumped up a full grade maybe 3 years in a row while doing the same job you started in. And again all of us are being encouraged to be 'generalists' though insourcing would mean someone has to 'know' something, and we continue to work with wax tablets and stylus. Meanwhile, there is pressure to squeeze out GS14s (many of whom in my agency have significant credentials) – this exercised by a number of GS15s who frankly aren't missed when they aren't around, which is often. Outcomes? Great in theory but fuzzy mission, low morale and mixed signals about one's longevity don't lend to attaining them. Some staff (and managers) take emphasis on 'results' as reason to focus only on short-term, less complex projects; and work that requires planning/thinking for instance related to exploring new areas, is dismissed especially given current tendancies to arbitrarly and capriciously curtail projects midstream without necessarily understanding them well enough to make an informed decision; or some of us are expected to work long hours to do the more intensive work, as if that is our hobby -- or because of someone else's poor planning, managers who dump on the 'competents' because of 'special' colleagues who 'aren't quite up to' doing anything more than offering opinions. Miraculously, money and work hours can be spared for some of our jr. colleagues to pursue full masters degree programs, then get a promotion because of their new status - ironically they they tend to leave, or worse, stick around and do pretty much what they were doing to begin with, kinda reminding me of the stereotype of 'old government.’ For true outcomes, you need effective leadership, a clear mission, all kinda stuff in place vs. dumping on the many fine staff in the middle who persist in attempting to do SOMEthing right.

Thu, Feb 9, 2012 fed up

Instead of workforce numbers or budget dollars,what about focusing on the core mission and going from there? Also, Workload is crazy because we are forced to do extra work every time regulations are changed.

Thu, Feb 9, 2012

I'm very busy; I spend most of my time on minutia!

Wed, Feb 8, 2012 Federal Worker

It is true that some managers will not give up a position but right now, with so many people retiring or moving to other positions, there are management positions and entry level positions that are not or cannot be filled because of the hiring freeze. Some of these positions are very much needed but "upper" management cannot or will not move qualified people into those positions. Restructuring is something that I would welcome. I would also look at who is really doing the job and possibly restructure positions so they are working more effectively instead of having individuals sit over people and not undertand the necessity of positions...

Wed, Feb 8, 2012

Easier said than done. What is the value of the work that the Federal Government does? Each organization and each group within that orginization is going to say it provides more value than the next. In an environment where perception triumps everything else, trying to properly place the right number of bodies in each group by the amount of "work needed" is a next-to-impossible quest. It should be done, but the question is - Can it be done?

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