Is the federal workforce stretched too thin to handle the next major disaster?

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A worldwide pandemic. A major hack of agricultural harvesting equipment. A massive earthquake.

A recent report from the Senior Executives Association paints a dire picture: Today’s federal workforce is increasingly overworked, stressed, risk-averse and ill-equipped to handle any one of these major emergencies or disasters, to name a few.

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Poor staffing, resourcing and working environments, in many cases, have all slowly created a “drag on the ability of government to be resilient.”

“The animating concern, from our sense, was that all the changes going on over a long time but intensifying more recently had left the federal workforce and the federal government in a position where it might simply fail in response to a relatively minor crisis,” said Greg Treverton, who helped lead research on the SEA report. Treverton previously served as chair of the National Intelligence Council and now teaches at the University of Southern California.

The researchers said it’s not their goal to make the case for a larger federal government. But they do acknowledge: roughly the same number of people have been asked to manage an ever-growing number of resources.

“What we are concerned with are the capabilities of our nation’s public service to respond effectively to crises,” the report reads. “This may be achieved by addressing concerns unrelated to size, including remedying decreasing morale, addressing the challenges created by increasing politicization on what should be non-partisan activities and updating legacy processes to be more effective in the digital era.”

Federal spending has quintupled since 1960, but the overall size of the workforce has remained roughly the same — about 2 million employees — since that time. As priorities vary from administration to administration, some cabinet departments have added more employees, while others, particularly smaller, independent agencies, have lost people in recent years.

The Senior Executive Service alone lost 1,506 career leaders in 2017. More than 400 positions were left unfilled at the end of 2017.

Despite stagnant growth within today’s federal workforce, the number of support and contract employees has steadily risen over the past 50 years. Today’s federal workforce relies on 3.7 million contract workers and 1.6 million additional grant employees, according to 2017 research from Paul Light.

That means today’s federal employees are largely managing a workforce that twice it’s own size, Treverton said.

Insufficient oversight for a growing federal budget

Meanwhile, the size of the congressional staff workforce hasn’t kept pace with its oversight duties in recent decades as the federal budget continues to grow.

Each House appropriations staffer is responsible for 52 percent more of the federal budget than he or she was 16 years ago, according to recent research from R Street, a non-partisan public policy organization. The workload for the average Senate appropriations staffer is up 30 percent over the same time period.

“Given these capacity deficiencies, Congress is unable to provide enough oversight of the $4 trillion they appropriate each fiscal year,” SEA researchers said. “Until something changes, it is reasonable to expect the federal government to continue operating by way of short-term funding and omnibus legislation.”

Too stressed, too many distractions

And in many cases, the advance of digital and mobile technology has been an additional stressor for the federal workforce, according to SEA researchers.

“They also add to the expectations of public service — including the expectation of 24/7 availability, an increasing volume of emails to read and data sets to analyze, increased interruptions during the day through different modes of communication and multiple demands for attention throughout the course of week or emergency response event,” the report reads.

Technology, however, isn’t the only stress point for the federal workforce. The nature of today’s government work is increasingly more collaborative.

In focus groups with current and former senior executives, SEA’s researchers heard countless stories that described an “alarming” work environment for many federal employees.

“We heard again and again how toxic workplaces have gotten, particularly for women, but not just,” Treverton said. “We heard stories of complaint channels being, in effect, weaponized, with complaint channels turned into sort of vendettas, often ruining careers.”

Political appointees, meanwhile, are often distrustful of career senior executives.

“In my time 20 years ago when I was a political appointee, I was suspicious of these permanent folks, but that only lasted, for me, for two days,” Treverton said. “On day one I realized I couldn’t get anything done without them. And on day two, I realized yeah, they were actually really patriotic Americans. They might have the opposition party’s bumper sticker on their cars, but they were basically loyal to the country and to the government. That seems to have changed. That seems like now that relationship is often irreparable.”

SEA’s report makes recommendations that, by now, may be familiar to the federal community. Many good government groups in recent years have made a wide variety of suggestions to modernize the civil service.

The federal hiring system, General Schedule and pipeline opportunities for young entrants to the federal workforce all need strengthening, the report said. There’s a menu of good ideas to change the status quo, Treverton said, if the public demands it.

“What we’d like to do is touch off a serious national conversation about what kind of government we do want,” he said. “Are we happy with one that’s second-rate, that finds it hard to attract and retain people [and] that does risk failing? We’ve seen that with [Hurricane] Katrina and other places. We’ve seen it fail, so it’s not just a hypothetical. Are we happy enough with a government like that? Or do we want something better?”

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