Want to actually trim government bloat? Start with the hidden workforce
Good-government groups have started to weigh in on what they hope will be the president's management agenda for the coming year. The good-government groups know that you can't beat something with nothing--the something being the flood of Republican proposals for pay and hiring freezes, as well as for blunt-force reductions in workforce.
The Republican agenda will do much more harm than good. The new House majority needs only look back to President Ronald Reagan's agenda for the evidence. Like many presidents before him, Reagan started his term with a pay freeze, brought in a blue-ribbon commission of business experts to probe for savings, and attacked the middle-level bloat through what was widely known as the "bulge project."
Nothing worked. The federal hierarchy grew taller and wider, the federal workforce aged into higher ranks, and the bottom of government shrunk as contractors took on many of the inbox duties once reserved for federal employees. The Fiscal Commission's notion that the federal government should adopt a 2:3 downsizing strategy for filling vacancies will fare no better. It's a random shooting that will further eviscerate the front lines of government, where the goods and services are actually delivered, and that will fuel further growth in the contracting workforce.
This contract workforce has been growing ever larger. It reached an estimated 7.6 million employees by 2005, and has surely increased since. Roughly two-thirds of it provides services of one kind or another--from manning cafeteria lines to providing high-level management consulting, computer programming and even writing procurement requirements. When Americans get mad at big, bad government, they rarely realize that big, bad government includes three contract employees for every one full-time federal employee.
The true size of the federal government, which includes military personnel, postal carriers and contractors, is now hovering at 12 to13 million. Now that's big government. Throw in the millions of state and local government employees who labor under unfunded mandates, contained in legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act, and the de facto federal workforce moves into the stratosphere.
Good-government groups such as the Partnership for Public Service have been ever more aggressive in calling President Barack Obama to lead as "executive in chief." This argument demands attention at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As the Partnership's CEO, Max Stier, argued only days before the midterm debacle, the president "must be the leader of the entire government and accountable for making sure that it works. Without the president's personal commitment, our government's ability to meet the needs of the American people is likely to fall short."
Unfortunately, most calls for leadership skip the paragraphs on what the president might actually do to ease the public's angst about the recent meltdowns across government.
Not so for the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank headed by former White House chief of staff John Podesta. The Center just released a report titled "A $400 Billion Opportunity." The report, subtitled "10 Strategies to Cut the Fat Out of Federal Procurement," provides a detailed agenda for harvesting between $25 and $54 billion a year.
The report provides a detailed roadmap for a 10-year effort to streamline the procurement process and make better decisions. Even including what the Center calls "ramp up time," the report estimates $330 billion in savings over a decade, which is hardly the kind of trivial savings that will come from double-sided copying, teleconferencing and the electronic paycheck deposits that should have been implemented long ago.
The Center's recommendations add yet another voice calling for a frontal attack on the needless obstacles to high performance. Not only does poor performance undermine public confidence, it also drives many talented federal employees to an early exit. According to another recent Partnership for Public Service report, almost a fifth of new employees leave within their first two years. Although the Partnership is shy about calling out the bureaucracy, past federal employee surveys suggest that many of the best employees give up early on the chance to make a difference.
Poor leadership is no doubt partially to blame, but so is the bureaucratic sloth, the hyper-inflated performance appraisal process, the absence of encouragement to break the mold and innovate, and the failed disciplinary system that keeps poor performers on the job long after they should have been fired. There is nothing quite so demoralizing to high performers than sitting next to clock-watchers who long ago forgot the public purpose that should motivate them to action.
The federal government and its hidden workforce can do better. That will no doubt require more attention from the president and his new director of the budget, Jack Lew. If the Senate does it job, Lew will be covered before the week is over. He not only brings significant budget acumen to the job, but he also cares deeply about federal management. So does his deputy director for management, Jeff Zients.
But without a strong word and firm embrace from the president, nothing will happen. As I've written before, congressional Democrats seem reluctant to provide any alternative to the Republican agenda. They need leadership, too. Until the president realizes that there are hundreds of billions to be reaped from bureaucratic reform, not to mention vastly improved performance, needed reforms will languish.
The president needs to step up and start reading. There is now plenty of material on management reform in his inbox. Let's hope that he doesn't outsource it to the hidden workforce.
November 19, 2010; 9:44 AM ET |
Federal government leadership
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