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Freezing and Thawing the Debate on Talent

This article was originally published in the Winter 2016-2017 edition of PATimes, Public Service Delivery for Aging Populations.

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

By Donald F. Kettl

President Donald Trump’s executive order to freeze federal hiring, just 72 hours after taking office, surprised no one. He had pledged to do just that during the campaign. Since the inauguration, he has used executive orders to supercharge his transition. Announcing, though, is the easy part. Where will the hiring freeze take us?

The first point comes from history, since we have learned that freezes quickly develop cracks and the cracks become thaws. Take the four hiring freezes in the late 1970s and 1980s—three under President Carter, one under President Reagan. Two lasted four months. The other two were combined, during the final 10 months of the Carter administration and the first two years of the Reagan administration.

It is little surprise that hard freezes never last long. If we do not hire new air traffic controllers, we Now hiringrisk crippling air service. Ensuring social security payments, processing tax refunds and managing airport screening all require enough skilled workers to get the job done. And, that is before we get to caring for patients at Veterans Affairs medical centers and catching criminals through the FBI. The pressures to keep such programs running make the case for exemptions to the freezes. In turn, the cumulative exemptions eventually cause freezes to melt. That means hiring freezes have their biggest impact as shots across the bureaucracy’s bow: symbols not only of efforts to cut government in the short run, but signs of what is to come.

But, that leads us to the second point. What impact do hiring freezes have? The best research comes from a 1982 Government Accountability Office report that looked carefully at all four freezes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. GAO found that they did not significantly cut the number of federal employees. Under pressure to maintain services, some agencies hired part-time employees and relied on overtime for government workers. Many agencies contracted with private companies to perform work that government employees otherwise might have done. And, some simply slipped past the restrictions to hire new employees anyway.

Ultimately, hiring freezes do not tend to save money, shrink government or cut government employment. The enthusiasm for wielding the axe is usually highest when it comes to cutting someone else’s government.

That makes the third point: At their core, hiring freezes are primarily symbolic acts. Presidents say they use them to cut the size of government. Yet what hiring freezes really do is put down markers on presidents’ commitment to what they plan to do in the future. Most big things require Congress to act and new presidents do not want to have their first days held hostage in congressional committee rooms. So, they reach for their pen to show they are serious.

Inside government, however, hiring freezes can have dangerous effects. Changes in the ability of leaders to hire new employees can quickly affect an agency’s ability to operate. Vacancies—from employees taking new jobs or deciding to retire—can be random and leave some agencies short staffed for important missions. Freezes tend to undermine the morale of employees who often see their announcement—rightly—as an attack on them and their work. And, of course, freezes are highly disruptive of the plans of future employees, especially graduate students who have invested years of work and tens of thousands of dollars preparing for careers that are suddenly shut off, at least for a time.

Perhaps most important, President Trump’s freeze sets up a big debate. By mid-April, it requires the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to come up with “a long-term plan to reduce the size of the federal government’s workforce through attrition.” Just how large of a federal workforce should we have?

This is the subject of deep debate. In Bring Back the Bureaucrats, John J. DiIulio, who delivered ASPA’s 2016 Elliot Richardson Lecture, made the powerful point that the federal government ought to hire a million more federal bureaucrats, to bring work back into the government that contractors are doing. By contrast, conservative analysts from the Heritage Foundation have argued that we have too many feds, that they are overpaid and that their number ought to be slashed, perhaps by hiring just one replacement for every two vacancies.

That debate surely will continue but one point is absolutely clear: Whatever the right size is for the federal workforce, it is impossible to get there by attrition. We are sure to end up with not enough of the right people, at the right places at the right time with the right skills. That is evident from past efforts, including the Clinton administration’s downsizing. And, it is the big risk for the Trump downsizing plan.

We are at a critical point for the federal workforce, sometimes viewed as a creature of the swamp that must be drained. Yet this workforce also is the most important instrument for doing what the president, Congress and citizens want done. The coming years will prove critical in finding a new balance among these old, competing and important battles.

Author: Donald F. Kettl is professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a member of ASPA’s National Council. He is the author of several books, including Escaping Jurassic Government: Restoring America’s Lost Commitment to Competence, Little Bites of Big Data for Public Policy, and Can Governments Earn Our Trust? He can be reached at [email protected]

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