What Congress needs to learn about the federal workforce

With talk of furloughs, pay freezes, and yet another shutdown risk with the debt ceiling debate, the federal workforce is a little tired of always being in the bullseye.

One way or another, the federal workforce is bound to change.

Most likely it will shrink — by 10 percent, 20 percent or whatever Congress determines to be fiscally necessary and politically expedient. The balance of federal and contractor employees will also shift if Republican lawmakers are successful in re-energizing public/private competition for government work.

The size of the federal workforce has been a hot issue this year, primarily because of the budget battles. As numerous Federal Computer Week readers have pointed out, the proposed workforce cuts would not reduce the deficit by much. Nonetheless, the size of the deficit makes such cuts more politically feasible than they have been in years past.

Unfortunately, proposals to trim the workforce have mostly avoided the stickier issue of deciding which positions would be eliminated and whether staff cuts would be linked to corresponding reductions in services.

“I say fine, do it — cut us all out and then let Congress explain to their constituents why our soldiers keep dying of disease or killing themselves,” a reader named Paul wrote. “No matter that all of us do the jobs of at least three people due to hiring and budget issues.”

The disconnect between workforce cuts and operational realities has been one of the topics on the minds of FCW readers as the discussions shift from one proposal to another and the budget battles intensify.

Here is a sampling of the comments readers have posted about workforce-related articles at FCW.com. Comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.

A sense of inevitability

The year began with a bang when Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) introduced legislation that would cut the federal workforce by 10 percent in the next decade and freeze civilian employee pay for three years.

The Cut Unsustainable and Top-Heavy Spending Act has not advanced, but it has not been forgotten either. If nothing else, Brady kick-started a still-raging debate over the size of the federal workforce.

Some readers seemed relieved that Brady had dared to speak the difficult but necessary truth that the federal workforce was ripe for trimming.

And one reader knew just where to start. When you have a stable economy, organizations tend to reward good workers by promoting them, even if there are enough managers on hand, thereby bloating the ranks of middle management. Like private-sector companies, federal agencies could benefit from a fresh look at their organizational charts, the reader said.

“Start by taking a serious look at the way government manages [itself], re-organize to lose the fat, and then put an incentive package in place that promotes efficient operations,” the reader recommended. And don’t forget: “The workers are the people doing the job.”

Some feds hoped that the proposed legislation would force managers to confront a problem they have long avoided: the goldbrickers.

“I say they ask each federal employee to take a look around and identify the deadwood,” an anonymous reader commented. “There is a GS-15, step 10, in my group who plays games on his computer all day and steals $155,500 from the taxpayers annually.”

Based on the number of similar comments posted in recent months, it’s a safe bet that many readers would agree with both recommendations. However, once you get past the obvious targets, things get a little tougher.

“The problem is that the government is doing way too much to begin with,” one reader said. “Cut out the wasteful programs and spending, along with the workforce reduction, and you will not need to hire contractors or overburden those employees who are already working at maximum capacity.”

Unfortunately, politicians don’t catch any heat for suggesting cuts to the federal workforce, but they might hesitate to propose reducing or eliminating programs or services that benefit their constituents.

To propose cuts that risk voter backlash “takes leadership in the White House and Congress,” one reader wrote, “and so far no one's stepped up to the plate.”

Congress to feds: Chill out

As it turns out, lawmakers were just getting started. Perhaps they couldn’t generate enough support for sweeping cuts to the workforce, but that didn’t stop them from trying more modest measures.

A month after Brady introduced his legislation, Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) pitched her own idea, with a focus on attrition. The Federal Workforce Reduction Act would require the government to hire only one replacement for every two federal employees who retire or leave the government for other reasons. Only the Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments would be exempt.

As might be expected, many feds were outraged.

“Placing a hold on agency size seems reasonable as long as the general public does not expect more bad guys caught, more cases tried and more services available,” wrote a reader from Oregon. “Remember that the general federal workforce is a small part of the budget issues, and most of those jobs are not fluff jobs.”

Another reader questioned the assumption that DOD, DHS and VA should be exempted from workforce reductions. Defense agencies “easily out-waste the rest of the federal government combined,” the reader said and called for an “intervention” to address their management and financial practices.

Like Brady’s bill, Lummis’ has gone nowhere. But several months later, as the Obama administration and Congress were gearing up for debates about raising the debt ceiling, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) revived the idea of workforce cuts and said the government should freeze hiring at least until the $1.6 trillion deficit is resolved.

More outrage ensued. But the two bills also inspired some feds to get creative.

A reader named Cy tried to follow the thinking behind Lummis’ bill to its logical conclusion. Of particular interest was a provision that would require the president to set up a competitive process by which agencies would apply for new hires. Cy wondered: In effect, wouldn’t the bill be attempting to limit the workforce by creating a labor-intensive process that would need to be managed by perhaps some new, otherwise unproductive positions?

Another reader recommended ditching all the proposals on the table in favor of something even more radical, presumably with tongue in cheek: Why not make government employment into service for life?

Instead of paying salaries, the reader said, the government could provide employees, including elected officials, with standardized housing, health care, meals, community-shared vehicles and a small allowance.

Any takers?

The big question

The dueling bills and political rhetoric finally led some lawmakers to take a step back and think about the big picture.

They set aside debates about workforce cuts and hiring freezes and even appeared to forget, if only for a moment, about the looming deficit debates. What they wanted to know was this: What is the right size of the federal workforce?

No easy answer was forthcoming. But those lawmakers acknowledged something that FCW readers have been pointing out since the debates began: The big picture includes an awful lot of contractors. How do they figure into the budget debates?

“As a contract specialist, I award multimillion-dollar contracts to private companies for support services,” wrote a reader identified as Disgusted Fed. “Contractors now outnumber federal workers and are a hidden government workforce. Everyone needs to look at the whole picture of government spending [and] not just focus on federal employees.”

One problem is figuring out how many contractors there are wandering the halls of federal agencies. Some readers couldn’t understand why that would be difficult. Just do the math, they said.

“Take the total number of agency-badged people, subtract the federal employees, and you are left with the number of contractors who have entry access to the agency,” one reader wrote with an air of exasperation.

Of course, not all contractors have badges, but that shouldn’t be a problem because contracting staff sign off on invoices that show billable hours by person, the reader added. “One could...oh, I don't know...add those up?!?”

On the other hand, one could argue that a governmentwide headcount is a distraction from the issue at hand. Some readers even suspect it is an intentional distraction, created by the people who stand to lose their jobs. The theory goes that by saying a problem is unsolvable, feds and contractors can forestall any solutions that might prove painful.

“There's the whiff of feds and contractors linking arms to kick the can downhill,” Gorgonzola wrote. “To say the census of feds and contractors is undoable is ridiculous. More dithering, more waste, more time going by while the citizens and taxpayers get less and less for their dollars.”

Many readers have argued that the real challenge is to understand the work that needs to be done.

“You don’t need to count bodies until you determine what government is supposed to do,” wrote DP in D.C. “Then you determine how many people and how much money this requires.”

A reader identified as Elad broke the process down in more detail in case anyone in Congress needed more to go on. According to Elad, the steps are:

  1. Scope out the task at hand.
  2. Identify the personnel (including staffing level, skills and knowledge), time and materials that are required.
  3. Prioritize the task as essential, important or nice to have.
  4. Factor in the cost.

With all that figured out, an agency can determine the right mix of employees and contractors.

Who does what?

The next task is figuring out who does what. Some tasks clearly belong to government staff and others belong to contractors, but often the distinction is not so clear.

Many readers — both feds and contractors — agree on one point: Short-term jobs are best given to contractors.

“I have worked on both sides of the fence, and it is far easier to fire/release contractors than federal employees,” a reader wrote.

But long-term projects are more challenging, particularly when it comes to IT work. Some readers — again, both feds and contractors — urged agencies to assess their ability to hire and retain IT talent.

In particular, agencies often find they cannot keep pace with the private sector when it comes to hiring people with expertise in leading-edge technologies. And even if agencies manage to bring them on board, retaining them is another challenge.

“History has shown that it is a big mistake not to maintain a stable contracting base,” one reader wrote. “What career path is there for technical talent in government? Public-sector CIOs come and go, and chief technology officer positions are largely absent.”

Numerous people have suggested a two-tiered approach to workforce staffing: Put program managers on the payroll, and outsource the hands-on technology work on an as-needed basis.

“A former head of the organization (not the whole department) once indicated that he did not want any technical people on his federal workforce,” SOTE Contractor said. “It is a shame that he was the CIO.”

However, some readers see flaws in that approach, not the least of which is that it can undermine security.

“How do you hand off security controls effectively when you change the people doing the job in a more frequent time frame?” wrote Been There, Seen That.

Furthermore, managers who are not tech-savvy might have difficulty managing technology-related programs, no matter how many contractors are on hand to help.

“If you don't have technical expertise in-house, you have great difficulty managing technical programs,” Erich Darr wrote. “How can you respond to a contractor's quote for a project if you don't have anyone in-house who can tell you if that's a reasonable cost estimate?”

Finally, one reader wanted to remind Congress that as long as there is work to be done, someone has to do it, no matter how the budget debate is resolved.

“It does not matter what side gets cut. The same amount of work has to get done in any case,” the reader wrote. “You could cut jobs on both sides, and in a few months, the backlog would regenerate the need for those jobs. Within a year, we would be back at this debate. Personally, I could use a vacation.”

NEXT STORY: Pay for performance? Yeah, right.

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