People Problem

Government's personnel issues are more complicated than they look.

The federal government has a problem with its personnel-or its workforce, or its human capital, or whatever term of art you choose. That's not exactly news. After all, the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Personnel Management have been warning for years that agencies face a crisis of epic proportions as baby boomers begin to retire.

In a way, it would be comforting if all that agencies had to worry about was replacing their aging workers. But in fact, the situation is a lot more complicated than that. For some agencies, the retirement tsunami is still looming as a future threat. But others already don't have enough employees to get the job done. Still others have too many workers-or at least too many new employees they've hired in recent years and are still trying to integrate into their operations.

Overall, civilian federal employment has been steadily rising since it bottomed out at a little more than 1.7 million employees in 2001.

It now stands at more than 1.83 million workers, and the Office of Management and Budget projects that figure will continue to rise to 1.87 million by next year. But the increase has been concentrated in a few pockets of the workforce, most of them related to defense and homeland security.

The Justice Department's workforce has increased by nearly 18 percent since 2001, and the Homeland Security Department's total is up by more than 8 percent since its creation in 2003. The Defense Department has been slowly but surely boosting its civilian workforce since it bottomed out at 650,000 employees in 2001. But during the same period, employment at the Agriculture and Treasury departments has declined, as has the total workforce at agencies dealing with health, education and Social Security. Lack of staff limits what many agencies can do. For example, the Associated Press reported in April that 13 percent of the food Americans consume is imported, but only 1.3 percent of incoming food shipments are ever inspected by U.S. authorities. With limited resources and staff, the Food and Drug Administration focuses on foods that pose a high risk of contamination, such as seafood, fruits and vegetables. But that leaves out products such as the contaminated Chinese wheat gluten that recently poisoned dogs and cats nationwide.

Even at those agencies that are adding staff, managing people has become a major concern. In a recent C-SPAN interview, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said that more than half of his agency's employees have been hired since Sept. 11, and 20 percent of its analysts were brought in within the past year. "Right now, my biggest challenge is absorbing the growth we've had inside the agency and putting these new resources to work in an efficient and effective way," Hayden said.

Meanwhile, most agencies continue to rely increasingly on contractors to do the work they lack the staff to do themselves. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., has noted that the government's acquisition workforce is half the size it was in 2001, while the number of contracts issued by agencies has doubled over the same time period. Even at agencies whose workforces have increased in recent years, contract management is often a problem. The Coast Guard has seen significant staff increases since 2001, but members of Congress argued earlier this year that the agency needs additional contract oversight employees to address problems in its massive Deepwater acquisition program.

Moran has proposed boosting the overall federal procurement workforce, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has suggested attacking the problem from the opposite direction. On the presidential campaign trail in April, Clinton pledged to cut 500,000 federal contract jobs. That's five times the number of contract workers 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry had proposed eliminating. In neither case was there much in the way of detail to back up the proposal. How exactly do you cut the contractor workforce? And if you do, who's going to do the work?

When it comes to 21st century personnel management, lawmakers and federal employees themselves haven't been able to reach agreement even on the basics. Witness the slow, painful efforts to overhaul the Defense and Homeland Security personnel systems. Meanwhile, the clock is running, and the challenges are getting bigger and bigger.

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