It’s no secret the American public has had it with Washington. So, apparently, have some of Uncle Sam’s most distinguished civil servants.
Frustrated, exasperated, sarcastic, dumbfounded and disappointed. That pretty much sums up the sentiments of 18 top senior executives from 10 different agencies who participated in a candid conversation hosted by the Senior Executives Association to discuss the budget crisis, the inability of Congress and the Obama administration to fix it, and what many view as Capitol Hill’s vilification of the federal workforce.
According to an account of the conversation released Wednesday, one top official said she feels that she’s “been given a really important mission and is encouraged to carry it out -- as long as I don’t actually hire anyone, fire anyone, train anyone, travel anywhere, spend any money, ask the same question of at least nine people, award any contracts, or, God forbid, issue any reports.”
Said another participant: “We’re expected to complete the same missions that we did before and when something goes wrong….nobody stands up and says, ‘Well, it’s because we gave them less money.’ ”
The sequester that took effect in March, and will remain in place through 2021 unless Congress repeals it, is an unnecessary burden on federal executives who are doing their best to manage through it, according to the monograph of the April discussion. The mandatory budget cuts will have wide-ranging negative effects on the government’s ability to carry out its mission and to recruit and retain a talented and seasoned federal workforce for years to come, the group said.
The government has to slash $85 billion from its budget in fiscal 2013 under the sequester, divided roughly equally among defense and nondefense spending, with similar annual cuts extending through 2021. Hundreds of thousands of government employees have been furloughed this spring and summer, and things could get a lot worse after Oct. 1, when fiscal 2014 begins.
“We are working in a completely different environment today,” said one executive. “An environment of much more austerity, having to make some really critical decisions, when to take risks or avoid risks, yet we’re not training a complete generation of leaders to handle those decisions.”
SEA each year gathers together the winners of the president’s highest award to career civil servants for an unvarnished discussion of the issues and challenges facing them. SEA’s compilation included direct quotes, but did not identify any of the participants. SEA President Carol Bonosaro and Peter Zimmerman, senior associate dean for strategic program development at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, moderated the conversation.
The civil servants included in SEA’s monograph criticized both the legislative and executive branches for failing thus far to solve, or even mitigate, the budget crisis. But they sounded especially peeved at Congress.
“It was also felt that there was a lack of understanding within the legislative branch of the very real impacts of the decisions being made in Congress, with one Hill staffer having said to an executive, ‘We signed the bill two weeks ago. Why don’t you have your money yet?’ ” according to the discussion summary.
The monograph, called Reflections, includes comments from one participant who said her agency decided to raise the building temperature to 80 degrees to save money, a decision she considered “a penny-pinching morale killer.” Another executive was quoted as saying, “To make matters worse, you hear people on the Hill saying, ‘Well, what’s the big deal about raising the temperature a little -- or furloughing an employee for one day a [pay] period?’ Great solutions.”
Congress and the administration are tinkering around the edges, the executives said, trying to save money by gutting the low-hanging fruit instead of dealing seriously with entitlement programs and tax reform. “Folks are looking for an easy way out, but long term we have to talk about things that we’re not talking about in our agencies and on the Hill,” the report quoted one participant as saying. “Cutting back on travel as a strategy is a joke.”
The general population doesn’t get it either, the participants said, largely because sequestration isn’t hitting them in the wallet or disrupting their lives -- yet.
“Several thought the federal government and its workforce needed to implement some quasi-marketing strategies to make the American public understand how committed they were, and what they were capable of accomplishing -- while at the same time setting forth what happens when we’re forced to ‘take certain things off the table,’ ” the summary said of the group.
The spring discussion wasn’t all doom and gloom. One optimistic soul believed that the budget crisis could be “a positive force” and that “good things will come out of the sequester. We will find more efficiency and discover some constraints that have been self-imposed” by agencies.