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The Virtual Defense Department

The Virtual Defense Department

Washington is abuzz with news that the Defense Department is planning a wholesale restructuring of its personnel system. It is one thing for a small agency to remake the rules, quite another for a behemoth like DoD to propose radical reform.

The Pentagon has been the origin of dozens of reforms over the years, some big (the ill-fated Planning Programming Budgeting System of the 1960s), some much smaller (Defense appointed the first deputy associate assistant secretary in government in 1960, a harbinger of thickening to come), but all undisputedly influential and often long-lived. Old defense reforms never die and don't fade away either.

Thus, when DoD starts talking about a three-tiered personnel system composed of a protected class of civil servants at the top, a middle class of easily severable employees at the middle, and contractors at the bottom, Washington is bound to take notice. The mere suggestion of such a departure from traditional merit principles sends a shudder throughout the federal community, raising sharp questions about just what kind of public service the nation will bequeath to the next century.

At least for federal employees, the celebrated bridge to the 21st century yet may turn out to be made of Swiss cheese. Some employees will scramble across as the sole survivors of the merit system. Others will be condemned to wait for rare opportunities to move up from contract jobs. Still others will never get beyond a temporary posting, shorn of security and a certain dignity, even as they are asked to work side by side with the protected few. If the temporaries can only advance by the failure of the permanents, so much for teamwork.

To paraphrase that great doomsayer, 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life outside the first tier is likely to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Those who hold a coveted career post ought to think twice about riding in elevators with those below.

Although many will criticize the proposal and the odds against implementation are long, DoD is merely codifying the new realities of public service. The evolution of a "virtual federal service" composed of merit system employees, temporaries of one kind and another, and contractors began decades ago and is only now reaching its logical conclusion.

That evolution has already produced a federal service that delivers little, if any, of the basic services of government, a service composed largely of managers and contracting officers who oversee a vast empire of temporaries, contractors, state and local governments, and nonprofit agencies. At least the Defense Department believes that its temporary workforce deserves benefits. Many of the temporaries now working indirectly for the federal government should be so lucky.

The evolution has also changed the basic shape of the federal hierarchy. As late as the 1950s, that hierarchy was still a pyramid, with a small number of senior political and career executives, relatively few middle managers, and a broad base of front-line employees. Public administration giant Luther Gulick could still describe the President as the "one true master" of every last person in government.

Today, that traditional pyramid has changed into a pentagon, with a much larger number of senior executives and middle managers, and a steadily dwindling front line. The President may still be the one true master of every federal employee, but those employees no longer deliver most of the goods. The front-line jobs increasingly belong to employees whose one true master may be a state agency, a corporate CEO, a nonprofit board, or a temporary service.

The culprit in all this may be none other than former Mississippi Rep. Jamie L. Whitten, who authored an obscure 1950 amendment prohibiting the federal government from hiring any new full-time permanent employees. It was the first of dozens of personnel ceilings, freezes, reductions in force, and downsizings over the years. Even at the height of the Korean War, the Whitten Amendment held, forcing agencies to create temporary slots for needed employees. By the end of the war, when the amendment was finally repealed, over half the federal service was temporary.

To this day, the personnel freezes continue. Witness the 1993 Federal Workforce Restructuring Act, which has already reduced the size of government from 2.1 million to a meager 1.8 million full-time employees, with still more cuts to come. The main difference between the 1950s and today is that the needed posts are no longer being filled in the temporary service.

Rather, they appear to be moving into a virtual bureaucracy that exists somewhere outside the federal doorway. Instead of attacking the DoD proposal, advocates of a healthy public service should ask how this agency came to be so radical. The answer is that it is only doing what comes naturally to a government that holds the line on total employees without reducing its obligations. And for that, the Defense Department should be congratulated.

Paul C. Light is the author of The Tides of Reform: Making Government Work, 1945-1995 (Yale University Press, 1997), and drafted the final report of the Volcker Commission on the Public Service.

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