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The Evolving Federal Workforce

President Joe Biden wants to revitalize the federal workforce. But that could prove challenging.

​The end of Claudia Hitaj's six-year career as a federal research economist can be traced to the summer of 2018. That's when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced plans to move two subagencies from the Washington, D.C., area.

Employees of the Economic Research Service (ERS) were given a year to decide whether to pull up stakes or find another job in Washington, D.C. They learned only a few months before the year was up that their jobs would be moved to Kansas City, Mo.

Hitaj, who has a doctorate, declined to relocate. She landed a position with the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology doing similar studies on agriculture and the environment. Her husband was able to find work overseas, which was a major consideration.

"For me, I knew I couldn't make it work," Hitaj says of the option to move to Missouri. "It was a very stressful situation."

The USDA's decision to uproot parts of the ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture was pitched as a way to get researchers closer to farmers. But even with the hiring of some replacement staffers, the two divisions shed a combined 152 jobs between September 2018 and September 2020, according to U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) statistics.

"What a wonderful way to streamline government and do what we haven't been able to do for a long time," said Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff to then-President Donald Trump, in August 2019.

Intended or not, the reduction was just one example of what some saw as the mistreatment of public servants under Trump, who promised during his campaign to reduce the size of the federal government. His single term featured two government shutdowns, personnel cutbacks in many departments, retribution against whistleblowers and numerous executive orders targeting federal employees. Morale in 2019 was down from the previous year in 10 of 17 federal agencies, a recent survey shows.

Some think the Trump administration will be remembered as the nadir of the merit-based civil service.

"It becomes the lowest conceivable bar that all administrations could be judged against," says Allan Rosenbaum, president-elect of the American Society for Public Administration and a professor of public policy and administration at Florida International University.

Operational snags do more than frustrate public employees who are trying to do their jobs. Companies and institutions in the private sector rely on the federal government for a variety of functions, such as producing data and making regulatory decisions that can, in turn, influence decision-making in private-sector organizations.

"The regulatory environment takes forever," says G. Edward DeSeve, a former special advisor to President Barack Obama and coordinator of the Agile Government Center at the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). "If you don't have enough people to answer the mail, to answer questions about what's going on, to register documents, etc., it just creates enormous roadblocks for people."

21-0247 ATW 2-27 COVID Fatigue_R2 infographic_560x610.jpg

Loss of Experience

As during previous administrations, the largest employee reductions during Trump's presidency occurred in federal agencies and offices that didn't align with the administration's priorities.

Suffering the biggest percentage loss was the U.S. Department of Labor. Its headcount dropped more than 11 percent—to 13,976 from 15,766 employees—between September 2016 and September 2020, according to OPM. The State Department, a slightly smaller agency with responsibilities on the world stage, experienced a staffing drop of almost 9 percent over the same period, to 11,968 from 13,126 employees. The Interior and Education departments each had staffing decreases of at least 7 percent, while the Environmental Protection Agency's headcount dropped 4.5 percent.

The USDA, parent agency of the two displaced agriculture research offices, lost 5 percent of its staff.

"Of course, the agency is not going to be functioning at its most productive," says Laura Dodson, a Washington-based ERS researcher and acting vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403. "This is an extremely messy situation that's going to require some creative solutions."

Meanwhile, the overall headcount at Cabinet-level departments grew by 87,769 employees during Trump's administration, almost a 5 percent increase, as Trump officials prioritized other areas of government. Big winners were the departments of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, which each saw double-digit percentage increases, and the Defense Department, which grew 2.5 percent over the four-year period, OPM said.

But the job gains did nothing to fix what many consider to be structural problems that predate Trump. The federal government has long had a reputation of being a rigid and sometimes unrewarding workplace, despite offering such employee perks as pensions, job protections and, more recently, paid family leave, which was enacted under Trump.

Chad Hooper, who spent more than a decade with the IRS before leaving in late 2020, found the system too constraining. He started as a Grade 5 employee and worked in collections, fielding calls from taxpayers. Even though he has a master's degree in forensic accounting, he says he could never make the jump into the agency's auditing function because of hiring guidelines or poorly informed decisions by personnel managers.

"It's like the first job you get sets your whole career in motion in a way that you didn't even know," says Hooper, now executive director of the Professional Managers Association, which advocates on behalf of more than 30,000 nonunion IRS employees.

One remedy he sought in order to end the job stagnation was to take courses to become a senior executive, one of the government's top career employees. But Hooper says he ultimately realized the commitment and responsibilities would not be worth the compensation.

Indeed, the senior executive yearly pay band of $130,000 to $190,000 isn't much larger than incomes earned by the upper-echelon General Schedule employees who work under senior executives, notes Jason Briefel, director of policy and outreach for the Senior Executives Association in Washington, D.C. The association represents more than 5,000 top administrators who increasingly have found themselves in the political crosshairs.

"We're the people that everyone throws under the bus," Briefel says.

He concedes that the idea of improving the lot of government senior executives, including increasing their compensation, is a tough sell until the federal government gets its act together.

"Unless the people feel that the government is performing and the trust is starting to be rebuilt, I'm not going to spend a lot of time and oxygen on the pay issue," he says.

Room to Improve

There's no shortage of ideas on how to improve things. An ideal revamp of government, analysts say, would include granting federal agency leaders more flexibility in executing their missions and making departments less beholden to local offices, especially now that remote work has become more accepted.

Also, the federal workforce of more than 2.1 million civilians is top-heavy with older employees who are at or near retirement age. More than 43 percent are age 50 or older, compared to just 8 percent of civil servants who are in their 20s, OPM numbers show. By comparison, employees ages 20 to 34 make up nearly one-third of the nation's entire workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Recruiting young people should be top priority for the feds, experts say, and pay rates could be made more competitive at the entry level.

"The problem is that two- or three-year period between getting somebody right out of school and getting them up to a level of pay that is competitive," says Jeff Neal, formerly chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security and a member of NAPA. "If you talk to the typical 22-year-old about what they're going to get today versus what they're going to be getting three years from now, today tends to win."

Many agencies still rely on the government's centralized employment website, USAJobs. Neal says this destination is known in some quarters as "post and pray" because it can be ineffective at finding the right candidates.

A 2020 NAPA report on revitalizing the federal workforce suggested that OPM reach out to young people and "put public service back in the mix for job seekers," possibly through advertising. Some agencies proactively recruit on college campuses, says Neal, who helped craft the recommendations.

Other suggestions in the report, Modernizing and Reinvigorating the Public Workforce: An Agenda for 2021, included dumping canned questionnaires and stale assessment methods, reducing the number of positions that require a security clearance, and getting managers more involved in selecting candidates.

"Unfortunately, there are some managers who believe filling positions is HR's job," Neal says. "If getting the right talent isn't part of your job, then you're not much of a manager."

In February, President Biden nominated Kiran Ahuja to be the director of OPM, which Trump at one point sought to eliminate. Ahuja served as OPM's chief of staff during the Obama administration from 2015 to 2017 and headed the Biden transition team's OPM efforts. She currently serves as the CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, a network of philanthropic institutions based in Seattle.


Whistleblower Laws Create a Legal Patchwork

The pandemic forced even the notoriously stodgy U.S. government to better utilize the telework model. This is something it was supposed to be doing anyway under a federal law passed more than a decade ago.

The question now is whether the federal civil service will make greater strides in remote work or retreat to their offices in a post-pandemic world. The smart bet seems to be on the feds' leaning in to telework more than ever before.

"The genie's out of the bottle," says John Kamensky, senior fellow with the IBM Center for the Business of Government in Washington, D.C. He studies the public sector's use of telework.

"Maybe if it only lasted three months, we would have gone right back to where we were, but now that it's gone on for almost a year, managers are beginning to adapt and understand."

In 2010, 22 percent of federal employees teleworked at some point, even though 32 percent of workers overall were considered eligible, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). In 2017, the eligible pool rose to 43 percent of the federal workforce, but only 36 percent worked remotely in that annual period, OPM said.

Those figures will almost certainly be higher in future reports. In late January 2021, the Office of Management and Budget prohibited federal workplaces from being more than 25 percent occupied during "periods of high community prevalence or transmission" of the coronavirus.

Some agencies already had pivoted successfully. In April 2020, early in the pandemic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported 96 percent of its 14,000-member workforce was teleworking, according to MeriTalk, a website focusing on information technology in government.

"People who were not particularly supportive of telework suddenly decided 'Either my mission fails, or I loosen up on this,' and so they started loosening up," says Jeff Neal, a former human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security.

The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 obligated executive agencies to create strategies that would allow at least some employees to work remotely. Among other goals, the legislation was supposed to help federal personnel achieve greater work/life balance and make the government more competitive with the private sector, which is seen as less apprehensive about letting employees work remotely.

Telework isn't considered an ideal option for U.S. intelligence agencies because of the sensitive nature of the information employees are handling, Kamensky says. For many other departments, however, the security risk is considered manageable through the use of virtual private networks and other security measures.

A shift toward telework could even realize huge savings for taxpayers if the government can shrink its massive real estate footprint. The big challenge will be keeping bosses and employees focused on agency goals, says Jason Briefel of the Senior Executives Association.

"Social capital matters, and it can be built in a remote experience, but it takes intentionality," he says. "It takes staff and HR and folks who know how to help make that all work. Otherwise, it just sounds good. You're saving money, but you maybe have a more disengaged and disconnected workforce." — M.R.

Next Steps

The U.S. House Subcommittee on Government Operations held a hearing in February to address the need to revitalize the federal workforce. But the subcommittee members' views were predictably partisan.

"While we overturn the catastrophic policies of the previous administration and nourish a federal workforce starved of resources, we must simultaneously find ways to rebuild our civil service and attract the next generation to public service," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., the subcommittee chair.

However, Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, defended the former president for trying to hold federal workers accountable for U.S. taxpayers.

"The majority of federal employees are good at what they do," Hice said at the hearing. "They're proud to do it, and they have chosen the federal workforce in large part because it's important and meaningful work. But many of them—let's just be honest—have to pick up the slack for poor performers."

Given the pandemic-related crises facing the U.S. right now, the White House might choose not to undertake an ambitious revamp of the federal workforce, at least not immediately. In the short term, the new administration could simply staff up neglected agencies and do what it can via executive order to make the government run more smoothly.

At the very least, Biden has gotten high marks for trying to boost the morale of federal employees. He has praised their work repeatedly and was quick to revoke some of his predecessor's controversial executive orders. Biden has announced plans for expanding the diversity of the workforce and increasing the minimum wage for federal workers.

The change in tone hasn't gone unnoticed by Hitaj, the agricultural researcher who relocated to Luxembourg in 2019. She appreciates the new administration's embrace of scientific research and doesn't rule out one day rejoining the U.S. public sector.

"You already take a pay cut going to USDA, at least at the Ph.D. education level," Hitaj says. "So there's definitely a public service aspect to it that I found appealing, really getting to work with great people across the federal government."

Mike Ramsey is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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