The challenges of including contractors in the federal workforce size debate

It won't be easy for Congress to count and possibly cut the number of contract employees -- for a variety of reasons.

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.

NEXT STORY: The limits of communication

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.