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Do We Deserve This?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh
April 14, 2023

As a presidential candidate, Joseph Biden promised to restore the hollowed out government. More recently, there have been a lot of articles about government being hollowed out. To effectively consider this issue, we need to define the term, identify specific examples and examine the effects.

The simplest definition is “to make an empty space in something.” From a private sector perspective, hollowing out involves focusing on core functions and using the external market for non-core functions. Government hollowing out involves two characteristics: first, the removal of government functions to other organizations which may be either private or public sector, and second, general weakening of the capacity of the government organization.

Both government types of hollowing out have occurred at the federal level in recent years. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) provides an excellent example. In 2019, background investigations, which had been the responsibility of OPM since its creation in 1978, were transferred to the Department of Defense. Also in 2019, the Trump administration proposed the transfer of OPM policy making functions to the Office of Management and Budget and all other OPM functions to the General Services Administration. This second effort was eventually withdrawn because of pressure by Congress and other stakeholders. However, the threat of this change resulted in a slow, but significant loss of employees engaged in functions outside of background investigations during a period when Trump administration officials generally limited hiring efforts in most government agencies.  More specifically, in 2020 OPM had 2519 employees and in 2022 that population had dropped to 2448. This loss of staff has likely contributed to a February 2023 assessment by the Government Accountability Office indicating that OPM currently lacks workforce capacity to implement some of its strategic objectives.    

The Department of the Interior is another example. Although never implemented, the last administration proposed a reorganization plan that would move thousands of employees around the country. At a meeting of oil executives, the department secretary noted that thirty percent of Interior employees were “not loyal to the flag, meaning the secretary as an individual. At the same time, career senior executives who raised concerns about climate change were reassigned in retaliation causing them to resign. During this period, Interior lost 6 percent of its staff and has only been able to replace 2 percent. As a result, Interior has had problems with service delivery in areas such as the health and safety of indigenous people, the energy transition, and science based decisions.

A third example is the State Department. After two years into the last administration, the State Department had not filled half of its top jobs and subsequently lost 10 percent of its employees. Again, there were multiple causes for this situation, e.g., not filling vacancies, forcing staff to leave, rejecting candidates that worked in the Obama administration or who did not support the Trump candidacy, difficulties getting nominees through the confirmation process. This situation resulted in two significant problems. From a diplomatic perspective, the president did not have a personal representative dealing with U.S. concerns in significant countries such as Australia, Saudi Arabia and Mexico. At the same time, passport backlogs were unprecedented.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provides the final example of hollowing out that goes back over ten years. The IRS lost a third of its tax enforcement staff between 2010 and 2019. In the same period its funding was cut by twenty-five percent. Audits fell by 42 percent, particularly for those making $500,000 or more. Because low income individuals are easier to audit, in 2021 IRS audited 13 low income individuals while auditing only 2.6 other individuals for every 1000 taxpayers. The most obvious effect of this hollowing out is that the government has lost revenue and low income citizens are disproportionately audited.

When the government is unable to provide adequate service, the average citizen assumes incompetence, not intention. The above examples did not happen by accident. They were the result of intentional action to diminish the capacity of those agencies, and those actions could occur again. Recently, the former president pledged, if reelected, to revive previous efforts to crackdown on whistleblowers, move agencies out of Washington, DC, and implement Schedule F which eliminates civil service protections. In addition, he indicated that he would remove bureaucrats in national security and law enforcement agencies. At the same time, House Republicans recently warned agencies that if they staff up, they may have to lay employees off because of future budget cuts. Given these statements, federal managers need to think about how they will provide essential services in the face of actions that will diminish their capacity to effectively serve the public.

The common thread in the above examples is intentional assault of agencies through reorganizations, reassignments, and staff reductions. The result is poor mission implementation of services that directly touch the public. While managers need to find ways to address the effects of hollowing out, citizens need to understand the causes of poor service. Thomas Jefferson said “The government you elect is the government you deserve.”  American citizens do not deserve a hollowed out government.

Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: profschuh.

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One Response to Do We Deserve This?

  1. Robert A. Hunter Reply

    April 15, 2023 at 7:32 pm

    Very thought-provoking.

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