Obama proposes staffing increases for some agencies

President Obama's first budget will boost staffing at a number of federal agencies, but it is not yet clear if the administration plans a long-term workforce expansion to help implement the economic bailout and address other shortfalls.

The administration's fiscal 2010 budget summary pledged a multiyear effort to increase Foreign Service and U.S. Agency for International Development staffing, for instance, but did not say how long the effort would last or how much funding would be provided. The document, which was released last week, also lacked details on proposed hiring initiatives to improve the Securities and Exchange Commission's oversight capabilities and the Social Security Administration's processing of disability and retirement cases.

A number of other initiatives in the budget summary appear to require additional staffing, but the administration did not discuss hiring in conjunction with those plans. For example, Obama sought an increase in the number of Veterans Affairs Department treatment centers and mobile clinics, especially in rural areas. But the outline does not mention how VA will address those needs when it already is facing staffing shortages in other occupations.

"I think you have some general statements about the need to refocus federal employment in critical areas," said Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "But I do think there's a broader strategic need that is still not directly addressed in this budget, nor was it fully addressed in the stimulus package. You have a substantial investment in the back end for oversight, but no similar investments on the front end."

John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said details on the proposed workforce expansions -- expected in April when Obama unveils his full budget request -- would put other staffing increases in context. The 2009 omnibus spending bill, which funds 500 State Department positions and 300 new jobs at USAID, is a "good start" in addressing shortfalls, he said, "but we do not know yet what will be contained in the fiscal 2010 budget request."

Stier said single-year hiring bumps might not address long-term growth in the demand for government services, especially at agencies such as SSA, which is only beginning to cope with applications for retirement benefits from baby boomers.

He also noted that the administration has yet to appoint an Office of Personnel Management director or name a chief performance officer. (Obama's first choice for that position, Nancy Killefer, withdrew for tax reasons.) This might make it harder for the new administration to flesh out staffing details, he said.

"You're talking about people who are up to their elbows in alligators," Stier said. "I think you've got to have some sympathy, but if they do not approach the challenge that we face in our government -- the personnel challenge -- comprehensively and strategically, they won't get done what they want to get done."

Union officials appeared optimistic the administration is up to the challenge.

American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage, whose union represents SSA and Bureau of Prisons officers, praised the budget outline for its attention to staffing. The Bureau of Prisons would receive $6 billion in fiscal 2010 funding under the plan, some of which would be used for new hires.

"We are encouraged by finally having the resources to run our agencies," Gage said. "This budget is a welcome departure from the 'starve the beast' policies of the last eight years that sought to deprive government agencies and programs of the resources they needed to carry out their missions on behalf of the American people."

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