President-elect Donald Trump has said he would shrink the size of the federal workforce through attrition, but that could be harder to do than it sounds.
“This is a road that many prior presidents have been down, without success,” Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington-based nonprofit, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 9.
The federal workforce, with about 2.1 million civilian employees, is about the same size as it was during the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s, Stier said. Although there are a lot more federal contractors now than there were then, the government also has many more responsibilities, including a beefed-up homeland security function, he said.
As a practical matter, a federal hiring freeze—with exceptions for employees whose jobs affect public safety or national security—could be put into place by an executive order, Stier said. Trump during an Oct. 22 speech in Gettysburg, Pa., said his proposed “contract with the American voter” would include such a freeze.
But determining which positions would be covered by the freeze would be an initial challenge, Stier said. About one-third of the civilian federal workforce is employed by the Department of Defense, he said. The Department of Veterans Affairs employs about 15 percent of the federal workforce, and the Department of Homeland Security accounts for roughly 10 percent of the federal workforce.
Then there is the question of which types of positions should remain unfilled, Stier said.
Currently, he said, federal agencies have more information technology employees over the age of 65 than under the age of 30. Having a hiring freeze in place for IT positions could prevent the government from updating its skill sets, Stier said.
Freezes ‘Don't Get You What You Want.’
The goal should be a more effective government rather than simply a smaller number of employees, Stier said.
“Hiring freezes don't get you what you want,” he said.
Updating the federal civil service system would be a better focus for the upcoming administration and the next Congress, Stier said. The partnership and management consultant Booz Allen Hamilton issued a detailed plan in April 2014 to overhaul the civil service system, he noted.
“Fix the hiring process, make it easier to deal with poor performers and institute a market-based pay system,” Stier said, outlining some of the report's recommendations. “We do have a government that is in need of significant reform.”
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