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How Many Supervisors Does Government Need?

Managers continue to be a target for cost-cutting, but the workload is still there.

As federal agencies continue to face unsettled budgets and declining staffing levels, many organizations will likely turn to traditional strategies for reducing personnel costs. These strategies usually include (1) eliminating supervisory positions as they become vacant and (2) eliminating supervisory positions by combining organizational units. Both approaches result in a reduction of supervisors, and an increase in supervisory ratios -- the number of supervisors per employee supervised.

Through the years, supervisory ratios have proved a handy measure of agency success in reducing personnel costs because it’s easy to track. But it’s also been a controversial measure. As budget pressures increase, this approach might become even more contentious.

Supervisors will continue to be a target for cost-cutting because their numbers are large. Although no one knows the exact number of federal positions classified as “supervisory,” estimates range from 210,000 (a ratio of one supervisor for every 10 employees in a non-postal federal workforce of 2.1 million) to 300,000 (a 1-to-7 ratio). The Federal Managers Association, for example, says it represents “over 200,000 supervisors and managers in the federal government today.”

Regardless of the actual number, is that too many? Should that number be reduced? No one really knows. No one has determined what the ideal span of control should be for a supervisory position, and there is no real guidance for deciding how many supervisors are needed to oversee the widely varying scope of government functions.

Nobody questions the need for supervisors. They play a key role in keeping government working effectively and managing those 2 million federal workers. Among their duties, supervisors are expected to:

  • Plan and schedule work
  • Assign work to subordinates
  • Provide technical direction
  • Set deadlines and objectives
  • Evaluate work performance
  • Perform human capital functions such as making or recommending personnel selections, identifying training needs, and hearing and resolving employee complaints
  • Perform countless administrative tasks related to timekeeping, records and communicating information from higher level managers

These are all necessary and essential functions. If there aren’t enough supervisory positions available to perform these functions, they will either not get done or they will float upward to more senior managers who are already overburdened with broader managerial tasks.

On the other hand, supervisory positions add to an agency’s administrative overhead. And when there are too many layers of supervision or when individual supervisors seem to have narrow spans of control (only three or four subordinates), these situations provide ammunition for anti-government advocates who say the federal bureaucracy has too many chiefs and not enough worker bees. This is not a good image in lean budget times.

But even if you agree that supervisory positions can be reduced, what’s the best way to go about it?

Past efforts to reduce supervisory ranks by setting targets have been unsuccessful. During the Clinton administration, one of the key workforce restructuring initiatives of the National Performance Review was to increase supervisors’ and managers’ span of control over other employees a 1-to-7 ratio to a more efficient 1-to-15. But the Government Accountability Office in separate reports found that progress was very slow and some agencies met their goals by substituting team leader positions for supervisory positions without any real restructuring.

Despite the many obstacles to reducing supervisory numbers, it certainly seems worthwhile in the current budgetary climate to review and assess whether personnel cost savings could be achieved by having fewer supervisory positions. Past lessons show that the reductions should not be based on some arbitrary numerical target or ratio or by merely eliminating supervisory positions that become vacant through random retirements or other attrition. Instead, supervisory reductions should be part of an agency’s overall strategic approach to workforce reshaping, which should include workload analysis, attrition projections, program performance and skills assessment. Ideally, some of the eliminated supervisory positions should be redirected to front-line employees.

The goal should be to achieve efficient and streamlined organizations with logical spans of control, based on the type of work supervised. Only with the right balance of supervisors to employees supervised can an agency claim that it’s doing a good job of managing the limited number of positions available to accomplish its mission.   

Henry Romero is a senior advisor with Federal Management Partners Inc. His 32-year federal career in human resources included positions at the Defense and Justice departments as well as the Office of Personnel Management.

(Image via Alev Bagater/