Analysis: Inside or Out

One of the greatest challenges the new administration faces is striking the right balance of civil servants and federal contractors. Recruiting the best and brightest is vital to improving the prestige of federal service. But will President Obama commit to hiring more civil servants?

The nation is abuzz with an increased attraction to public service. The question now is whether the new administration will be able to parlay this interest into a more effective, higher-performing civil service. If this is the goal, then the Obama administration should ask the following questions.

Where is the need? To use a military analogy, which agencies on the civilian side of government should have more boots on the ground? Which have a substantial backlog of activities, such as the processing of claims? Which agencies must speed up time-sensitive work such as reviewing applications? Are certain staff functions (personnel, procurement, finance) understaffed in government?

Who should be hired? Once staffing needs have been identified, the new administration then has to decide whether to hire federal employees or contractors. Without getting into the "inherently governmental" debate, there are simpler, equally effective questions that the Obama administration can ask as a guide. These include:

  • Does the agency need to create a stronger institutional and permanent capability to respond more effectively to a major national issue?
  • Is it looking at a heavier workload due to changes in demographics such as aging baby boomers or the increase in returning veterans?
  • Is the agency facing a temporary backlog that simply requires more bodies to process papers?
How long should they stay? If more civil servants are needed, then what type of compensation package will the government offer new employees? Decisions about the need for more career civil servants and the terms of employment should be separate. Government continues to think in terms of the traditional 30-year career on which the civil service historically has been based. There is growing evidence the millennial generation might not be interested in an entire career in government, but would be happy to sign on for five years, with the option of staying. Government should move away from the long-established concept of full-time, full-year, permanent employees. There are a number of nonstandard work arrangements the federal government can use to manage situations such as backlogs or seasonal workload surges. The decision to hire more civil servants should not lead to exclusively using the full-year, full-time model for all new hires.

Where should they work? In some situations, the answer is obvious. If more employees are needed at the Social Security Administration, for instance, then they should be assigned there. But all civil servants receive their pay from the same place (the Treasury Department) and are, in essence, employees of the federal government -- not just the hiring agency. In fact, assigning individuals to specific agencies seems like a 20th Century bureaucratic response. A 21st Century approach might be to hire individuals to serve agencies across government on a where-needed basis. One example would be to create a governmentwide acquisition corps. It is clear that when government decides it needs a procurement workforce, it will require a larger corps of individuals trained and skilled in acquisition. The new corps would be deployed across government, bringing expertise that might not be available at a specific agency. If an agency wanted to develop a performance-based contract, for instance, it would call on the acquisition corps to send out its top performance-based contract team.

Government must come to grips with the challenges of obtaining the talent it needs either through a top-notch career civil service or a qualified contractor workforce. Asking the critical questions would be a good start.

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. He has served as executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and as president of the Council for Excellence in Government. His e-mail is mark.abramson@thoughtleadershipinc.com.

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