Contracting out may explain downsizing, scholar says

Thousands of federal jobs disappeared during the federal government's five-year downsizing frenzy, but many of them may have simply reappeared on government contractors' payrolls, a leading public administration scholar said Thursday.

Speaking with a group of journalists about the Clinton Administration's reinventing government initiative, Donald F. Kettl, director of the Robert M. La Follette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Management, said the government off-loaded many lower-paying service jobs, like janitors and cafeteria help, as a way to cut costs. But the government has no idea how many contractor employees are subsequently paid out of Uncle Sam's pocket, Kettl said.

"Question: How many contractors work for the federal government? Answer: Nobody knows," Kettl said, adding that additional federal jobs, including clerical and secretarial positions, were probably replaced by new technologies, most notably the personal computer.

According to the President's fiscal 1999 budget proposal, the federal civilian workforce will be downsized by 331,000 positions from 1993 to 1999. More recent predictions from Vice President Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government put the number cut at 350,000.

A big problem, Kettl said, is that the federal government took a haphazard approach to downsizing, selecting target numbers and then trying to hit those numbers without thinking about downsizing strategically.

"The government never strategically worried about where the cuts should come," Kettl said, so now it "doesn't have the right people at the right time with the right skills to manage programs."

As an example of the problem, Kettl pointed to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where a downsizing program will cut the agency's workforce by 45 percent from 1993 to 2002, from 13,600 to 7,500 employees. The General Accounting Office and HUD's inspector general have criticized the department's downsizing program for lacking a comprehensive review of what positions need to still be filled at the department after the downsizing dust settles.

"Will HUD be capable of doing its job?" Kettl asked.

Kettl said he has developed a law of public administration that the government's downsizing effort demonstrates: "The public sector adopts reforms at precisely the time the private sector discovers they don't work."

Vice President Gore has changed his reinvention strategy, since he and the President have already claimed that "the era of big government is over." But while the National Partnership for Reinventing Government is focusing on what Gore calls "getting results Americans care about," downsizing continues in many pockets of the government, particularly at HUD and throughout the Defense Department.

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