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Restoring Health to a Civil Service on Life Support

The diagnosis may be easier than the cure, but there are steps federal employees can take to improve the outlook.

To hear some senior executives tell it, the federal civil service is on life support, and its pulse grows weaker by the day. Without a sufficient number of skilled employees to oversee the effective functioning of the government, our nation suffers myriad security risks, not to mention the silent but deadly cancer of waste, fraud and abuse, a disease which inevitably grows to consume the body unless it is stopped early on.

The research comes from the nonprofit Senior Executives Association, and it points to a number of risk factors that may ultimately tear the civil service apart.

Most fundamentally, there aren't enough people to do all the inherently governmental work required to serve the American people: In 1960, there were 180.67 million of us; by December 2018, that number had nearly doubled, to 329.10 million. Yet according to the study, from 1960-2017, the civil service barely increased in number—from 1.8 to 2.1 million federal workers.

You might be thinking that this shrunken workforce is no big deal, because contractors can pick up the slack. And surely they have, at least to some extent: According to USASpending.gov, in 2018, the federal government spent $200 billion on contracts.

The problem, however, is that for the government to function properly, it has to limit what contractors can do, because some functions are by law inherently governmental. To oversimplify it, these include, but are not limited to decisions about:

  • Contracts
  • Military or diplomatic action
  • Civil or criminal judicial proceedings
  • Decisions that "significantly" have an impact on "the life, liberty, or property interests of private persons"
  • Hiring people
  • Managing U.S. money or property.

From a financial point of view, what might seem like an easy fix—having a flexible, even disposable workforce that grows and shrinks depending on need—quickly mushrooms into a nightmare. It is not illegal to seek to make a profit, and as profit-seeking entities, contractors will embed themselves into the fabric of the organizational culture.

The report also notes that citizens' expectations of government have increased with the proliferation of digital tools. People expect a higher level of service than in the past, and with the Internet, a 24/7/365 mindset has become the norm. While nobody is suggesting that we should pay people to read email, the reality is that someone has to keep the business of government going and answer the concerns of the people. Doing so requires a ceaseless process of reading and absorbing information, and responding quickly and accurately.

The report goes on to note that robots may well be able to do the work that people once did. But while these technologies may be useful in some settings, the reality is that they aren't quite "there" yet, and the civil servant is in fact needed to administer the functions of government, in emergencies and ordinary times alike.

We could recite a laundry list of "things civil servants do," but the bottom line is that decimating the federal workforce while padding the pockets of contractors is unlikely to result in value for the taxpayer.

Covering this story for Government Executive, Erich Wagner highlights some other findings. First, and most troublingly, "work overload" combined with poor performance management (read: lots of punishment, few rewards) means that the federal workforce is “fatally risk averse and as a result chooses inaction to action during critical times.”

Obviously this is a dangerous situation, because an employee who is not empowered to handle a complex, sensitive, evolving and murky situation with good judgment is not just useless but dangerous.

The second issue has to do with the way in which political partisanship has infected the civil service through political appointees’ pervasive suspicion of career civil servants. The study's authors are careful to note that this is not a partisan issue—the problem has grown increasingly worse since the 1980's—but that it has become more noxious as "each change in administration is like a hostile corporate takeover."

What’s to be done? Of course we can sit around moaning and groaning about the problems we face, or we can try to fix them.

  • With respect to the partisanship problem, one simple but powerful approach might be to revisit the notion of "bridge-building," finding common ground between people whose vastly different world views are rooted in the same underlying desire to serve. (If someone actually has another agenda in mind, that is a different problem, one that will not be resolved here.)
  • In terms of excessive spending, it would be useful for government to clearly explain to citizens where their money is going, without a proliferation of confusing spending dashboards and tools. The misperception over overspending on civil servants comes directly from conflating contractor spend with salary spend in reports such as this one from the Government Accountability Office, which resulted in numerous headlines decrying the wasted $1.5 billion per year spent on "public relations."
  • Finally, a third area to be addressed is the impact of many civil service retirements at once, which gnaws a hole directly in the institutional knowledge base of a body of employees that does not necessarily have all its information housed in an accessible way. While one can cynically say that many long-time civil servants are part of the problem, the reality is that their knowledge makes the difference between a program that is legal, sensible and smoothly implemented and one that crashes and burns upon arrival. As new employees join up, they can and should be trained cross-functionally, and further trained on the emerging technologies that make it possible to operate effectively with a relatively lean staff.

As a civil servant, one of the most rewarding things about my job is the appreciation people share when they receive the service their hard-earned taxpayer dollars have paid for. It would be a shame if nonstop fighting left our country bereft of the body of decent, hardworking people who make that service a reality.

Copyright 2019 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity.