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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

A Modest Proposal: Hire 1 Million New Federal Employees

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Give John DiIulio credit for bravery: In a new book and a piece in the Washington Post over Labor Day weekend, he makes the most counterintuitive proposal about the federal bureaucracy in recent memory: that government would be better served if agencies hired 1 million more employees by 2035.

This of course, not only goes against recent trends in executive branch employment, but the long-term picture as well: The federal workforce has hovered around 2 million white-collar employees for decades. The problem, DiIulio says, is that in terms of expectations and outlays, government has grown by leaps and bounds. Federal spending doubled between 1960 and 1975, and then doubled again by 2000.

Implicitly, DiIulio -- a longtime scholar of government operations and director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush --   attacks the conventional wisdom about the government workforce: that it is able to do more with fewer people because advances in information technology have made operations more efficient and workers more productive.

In fact, DiIulio argues, “post-1960 Federal America has become a grotesque Leviathan by proxy, in which an expanding mass of state and local government workers, for-profit contractors, and nonprofit grant recipients administers a vast portion of federal money and responsibilities.”

The federal government, he notes, spends $600 billion a year on more than 200 grant programs for state and local governments. And while the federal workforce has stayed roughly the same size since 1960, state and local employment has tripled, to 18 million workers. “Many state workers,” DiIulio says, “function as de facto federal bureaucrats,” administering federal programs such as Medicaid.

Likewise, the feds spend more than $500 billion a year on contracts with private companies, fueling a huge shadow workforce.

All of this, argues DiIulio, creates a misleading picture of the federal establishment:

Big government masquerading as state or local government, private enterprise, or civil society is still big government. And privatization that involves “acquisition workforce” bureaucrats contracting out work to entrenched interests is not really privatizing. The growth of this form of big government is harder to constrain, and its performance ills are harder to diagnose and fix, than they would be in a big government more directly administered by an adequate number of well-trained federal bureaucrats.

The solution, he says, is to slowly begin shifting spending from government’s proxies to its direct workforce. In order to keep pace with the growth of the nation’s population, that would entail expanding the federal workforce to about 3 million employees by 2035.

That, no doubt, is an attractive proposition for people who work in federal agencies, or who would like to. But there are a couple of things to consider.

The first, of course, is political reality: There’s no no constituency, anywhere on the political spectrum in the United States, for increasing the federal bureaucracy, except in very targeted ways--and generally in response to threats or scandals. (See the Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments.)

And then there’s a deeper issue: As a practical matter, federal agencies should not begin adding employees in massive numbers until the government’s hiring, compensation and performance management systems are completely overhauled. There’s broad agreement across the political spectrum that the federal human resources system is outdated to the point that it seriously hinders government’s performance. (That’s among the reasons that federal agencies have outsourced so much of their work to the private sector and other levels of government.)

What’s lacking is the political will to do anything about that situation. That needs to change before we can even begin discussing the optimal size of the federal workforce.

(Image via Jirsak/Shutterstock.com)

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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