Workforce Wonk

By Alyah Khan

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Advice: Hire more feds to shrink the deficit

Shrinking the size of the federal workforce doesn’t seem like it would actually do much to lessen the nation’s budget problems, but could hiring more feds present a potential solution to the government's money woes?

John Gravois, an editor at Washington Monthly, thinks so. In a lengthy article published in this month's issue, he argues that a targeted increase in federal staffing – as opposed to the workforce cuts called for by GOP members of Congress – would improve government and effectively cap spending.
Republicans have introduced legislative proposals to reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent or 15 percent as a way to drive down the deficit, but here’s the catch Gravois points out: the government would still have to provide mandated services, regardless of the number of employees it had to carry them out. And, as in the past, the burdensome workload might spur agencies to hire contractors – ultimately driving up overhead costs.

Arguments about the optimal size of the federal workforce, as we've reported in recent stories, have been going on among lawmakers, labor unions and employees themselves. While some suggest the workforce is growing at an out-of-control pace, the president's 2012 budget estimates a workforce of 2.1 million, roughly the same level as proposed last year and a modest increase over 2010 actual levels. Overall, the federal workforce has shrunk compared to the size of the U.S. population.

Gravois also argues that if Congress and the administration agreed “to lift some of the procedural requirements and redundant reporting demands that are the bane of the average civil servant’s life, it might be possible to fulfill their mission as well or better with fewer people.”

Although he states that reforms like this are unlikely, lawmakers did pass legislation last year -- the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act -- to reduce duplicate government programs.

A Government Accountability Office report released March 1 drove home the importance of implementing the updated law; it identified 34 areas of potential duplication and fragmentation, and 47 other areas where savings may be gotten or revenues increased.

Tell me what you think about Gravois' idea in the comments section below. Can the government do its job better (and cheaper) with more feds?


Posted by Alyah Khan on March 2, 2011 at 8:30 AM

Reader comments

Mon, Mar 7, 2011 Paul

Just to add to my comments, I'm not bashing contractors (I used to be one) but saying there is a time for contractors and a time for civilians. It's a balancing act. It also depends on the work involved. In my directorate, we don't have fixed work contracts. We don't have any "projects" like design a system to do this function. We perform a government function that will continue for as long as the US government exists. Others areas may benefit MORE from contractors. It just depends. One final note. Someone mentioned that contractors work for the civilians. That is incorrect. Civilians cannot legally tell a contractor what to do as they work for their contracting agency, not the government. It's generally a lot less formal than that in my experience, and contractors usually work side by side with government, but in the end that is the official position. We can't even tell them they are doing a good job without being reprimanded (I've seen it happen).

Fri, Mar 4, 2011 31yrs Fed Svc

Since the A76 workforce reductions, the workload did not lessen and obviously it cost more in overtime pay to get the work done with less manpower. On top of that all the added cost of correcting contractors unfinished and botched projects. Alot of the mistakes come about because the Federal workforce is smaller it natrually takes longer to respond to and complete work requests. So customers are bypassing the system going directly to hiring contractors with no one to monitor/inspect to ensure that installation safety codes for one, are being adhered to. Almost always it will be the Federal worker that discovers the descrepancy's. Guess who has to fix it. So in the end it costs double when it would have cost less if we had enough manpower to do right the first time. Reduction in Federal manpower. It's not as cut and dry as the GOP would have you believe.

Fri, Mar 4, 2011 Charles

Throwing more Gov employees at a project can help but it depends on what the task at hand is. Also, having been a contractor at one time, I know how they think and again the employees they would offer up are in two categories. 1. Fully experienced to do the job or 2. Not experienced to do the job but can learn it across the lifetime of the current contract. Employees in category 1 in most cases are very efficient workers and help the Gov employees tremendously! Employees in category 2 sometimes can spin up fast enough that it doesn't hurt the Gov employees and contract much, but if they are not experienced enough to even work in the field they were brought in to support then that will burn allot of contract funds before the Gov employees can realize any impact to their tasks. I say this from experience of having been put into that position and having seen coworkers thrown into projects that have no technical/engineering skills that even match the requirements. And don't get me started on computer systems utilized in a stand alone lab environment!!

Fri, Mar 4, 2011 Marcus California

The government has a lot of skilled workers. I believe the "system" is at fault. Contractors are a way to bring best of breed skills and experience to the government. To frequently, any knowledged gained is not shared nor properly documented. The government needs to start thinking and operating like private industry. Some things I see going on would and could never fly in the private sector.

Fri, Mar 4, 2011 Joe Kim Maryland

What the government should do is only hire contractors on an as needed basis to get the job done. Once the project is complete, let them go. If you need their services on a daily basis, hire them as a Fed for crying out loud. I realize it's a numbers game, but it's wrong to mislead the public.

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