Pay Freezes Helped Make Government Top-Heavy, Says Scholar

Flickr user Carlos ZGZ

An updated count of agencies’ rosters of chiefs of staffs, deputies and assistants shows that the number of Senate-confirmed positions and associated jobs — the layers of leaders in government — increased more than 400 percent between 1961 and 2016.

At the same time, many agencies have “widened” their hierarchy as the number of “leaders per layer” grew nearly 750 percent over that period, according to a new paper by Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University.

The paper, titled “People on People on People” (a reference to a statement by President Trump on the number of political appointees in government) is part of a forthcoming book on the “government-industrial complex.” Light argues in the paper that “government has never had so many layers of leaders”—71 different titles, based on a review of decades of editions of the Federal Yellow Book, which is published by Leadership Directories. “It seems that presidential appointees are nobody if they do not have a chief of staff, while chiefs of staff are nobody if they do not have a deputy chief of staff,” Light wrote in the paper.

Indeed, chief of staff is the fastest growing category of jobs at the top of the federal hierarchy, Light said at a briefing Friday. It now comprises 13 out of the 71 existing titles in the five top departments, which also include “deputy chief of staff to the assistant secretary” and “associate assistant deputy administrator.”

Though the total number of federal employees has remained relatively constant at 2.1 million over the past several decades, the number of Cabinet agencies has expanded from seven under President Kennedy to 15 under President Trump. Today, the department with the most layers is Defense, with 37, followed by Agriculture with 31 and Homeland Security with 30.

“The number of layers fell during the Clinton administration because of Vice President Al Gore’s targeted cuts on high-level management layers,” Light noted. They also dropped during the Obama administration’s budget battles of 2010 to 2013. Both reductions, he said, were “small and short-lived.”

One reason for the recent title creep, Light said, is that promotions were handed out during the Obama administration as a way of increasing salaries at a time of pay freezes. Reclassifying jobs “creates upward movement of the hierarchy,” he said.

Hence President Trump may have been on to something, Light said, when he recently told “Fox and Friends” that the reason he has been slow to fill hundreds of sub-Cabinet agency posts is that “a lot of those jobs, I don’t want  to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have.”

But Light is skeptical that Trump has a systematic plan for delayering government. And  decision-making inefficiencies created by title creep are real, he said. For example, Veterans Affairs Department nurses report through nine formal layers of command, including five at VA headquarters, while air traffic controllers report upward through 12, including six at headquarters.

Trump himself may be adding to the layers by requiring new regulatory reform officers in agencies, Light said. Also, laws enacted recently have designated new program management officials in government.

One potential solution to the layering issue would be to offer buyouts to entice baby boomers to exit the federal hierarchy, Light said.

“If Trump is truly serious about eliminating unnecessary leadership posts, he should order a careful examination of every non-statutory title,” the paper said. “Most experts agree that the federal leadership hierarchy is now much too tall, wide and isolating, but the flattening must be done with care, not benign or deliberate neglect.”

Photo: Flickr user Carlos ZGZ

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