Why Recent American Governments Have Fumbled Crises

02/01/2021 12:00am

The American Prospect

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President Joe Biden faces diverse crises, but they all share one thing in common: Solving them will require a federal government that is much better staffed than the one we have now. Former President Donald Trump’s reign of terror over the federal workforce, in combination with the inadequacy of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, has brought this long-running issue to the fore. If the Biden administration hopes to have any chance of success, it must make the case for a larger federal workforce while using all of the tools available to restore the federal government’s capacity to implement ambitious programs and administer the basic functions on which the public relies.

In the nearly seven decades since 1952, the U.S. population has more than doubled. The size of the country’s economy, as measured in real GDP, has increased by ten times. In contrast, the size of the federal government’s civilian workforce has stayed remarkably constant at about two million employees. While not every part of government needs to grow in line with these other metrics, many very clearly should. The same number of workplace inspectors, for example, should not be responsible for ensuring the safety of twice as many workers. The same goes for environmental inspectors, financial watchdogs, tax auditors, and more.

This should seem obvious to most, and yet the thrust of federal HR policy has tended in exactly the opposite direction for years. Lawmakers subject to the past few decades’ austerity fever found federal workers to be an easy target. Drawing heavily on racist tropes, they framed a highly integrated federal workforce as “lazy,” “inefficient,” and “undeserving,” and then joined together across the aisle to deny it resources, slash its functions, and push its jobs into the hands of federal contractors. Any discussion of the federal workforce’s degradation must start with this long-running trend.

Few leaders, however, were as unabashed—indeed, zealous—in their hatred of the federal workforce as President Donald Trump. He berated federal employees writ large as agents of the deep state and sought to deny resources for all but those carrying out the federal government’s most odious activities. (His administration issued a mandate that ICE hire an additional 10,000 employees that the agency hadn’t even asked for.) Unsurprisingly, faced with the threat, and sometimes the reality, of budget cuts, retaliation, and reorganizations, many federal employees walked out the door, leaving struggling agencies even weaker than before.

For all the media attention that attrition has received during the Trump years, it’s important to note that many agencies saw their staffing numbers plummet even more following the Obama administration’s ill-advised sequestration deal with the Republican Congress. Still, the particularly flashy, cruel nature of Trump’s attacks has drawn attention to the federal workforce’s plight in a new way.

This awareness was greatly heightened over the past year as the nation experienced just how ill-prepared the federal government is to tackle the challenges of our time. To be sure, Trump actively interfered with significant portions of the COVID-19 response, but examples of crumbling governing infrastructure that were largely independent of Trump also abounded. Consider, for instance, the Treasury Department’s slow distribution of stimulus checks to millions, or the mess that was the Small Business Administration’s handling of aid to genuinely desperate small businesses. Many have come away with the sense that the nation’s government, once capable of astounding feats, simply was no longer up to the tasks before it.

With more widespread recognition of both the problem and the stakes, the time is now right for President Biden to make the case for a hiring spree.

Good-government groups have been raising the alarm about the sorry state of the federal workforce for years, yet little progress has been made. Reformers have faced austerity-driven resistance, as well as administrative obstacles like slow and ineffective hiring processes, even when funding has been secured. Fulfilling virtually every plank of Biden’s platform—from stopping the public-health disaster and fighting climate change to reinvigorating the labor movement and closing the racial wealth gap—will depend on his administration’s success overcoming both the austerity mindset and the administrative delays. We urgently need a federal government that is sufficiently well resourced and well staffed to deliver for regular people, in times of crisis and peace.

For the moment, it appears that we will be spared another round of austerity. In the past year, Congress has poured trillions into the economy to stave off economic disaster, and most lawmakers—even some onetime deficit scaremongers—acknowledge that we need more. Congress’s new willingness to open the purse strings, however, is no guarantee that sufficient funding will be devoted to rightsizing the workforce. It is critical, therefore, that Biden explicitly make the case that massive new hiring will be integral to any ambitious plan, be it COVID response or climate policy. That includes hiring HR professionals to help manage the growth. HR capacity has been on the Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List for two decades; negligence in managing the problem now will undoubtedly plague the administration down the road.

With or without new, sizable congressional appropriations, Biden will still need to take steps to revive and rejuvenate tired, inefficient hiring processes. Money for new salaries is, after all, worth very little if you can’t find and hire people to start earning them. And in the event that new money is not forthcoming, renovating what already exists and putting it to creative use has great potential.

This will require getting into the weeds of federal HR policy, as well as choosing the right people to dive into the details. Everything from job advertising and recruiting to résumé review and interview practices needs attention. Whether they get it will depend in no small part on the energy and creativity of leadership at the Office of Personnel Management (aka the federal government’s HR department).

OPM’s ability to make hay of a thicket of hiring authorities will be an early test. When the government hires, it does so under a specific legal authority that lays out key aspects of the hiring process and the terms of employment. Over time, the number of available authorities has ballooned—a 2014 GAO study found that 105 different authorities had been used to make at least one hire. It also observed that many managers felt that they had a poor understanding of the purpose and proper use of many authorities. So while many observers complain government managers do not have enough “flexibility,” when it comes to hiring authorities the problem may actually be too much, not too little.

This is where OPM should step in to “help agencies actively employ what hiring tools they already have.” That wording comes from a new Revolving Door Project memo, which notes there are a select handful of authorities and programs that could prove particularly useful for bringing new workers on board quickly while setting the federal workforce on a more sustainable path moving forward. For example, OPM can grant agencies “Schedule A” authorities to temporarily hire people to address a critical need (it can, then, be possible to bring them on board permanently through other avenues) or to temporarily waive certain steps in the hiring process to get people on board more quickly. OPM can also grant agencies “direct hire” authorities that allow them to hire individuals into the permanent civil service when severe shortages exist. Over the longer term, making use of entry-level recruitment programs like the Pathways Program will also be key. So will bringing many jobs that are currently in the contract workforce back into government.

Some of the available authorities were put to use at the onset of the pandemic. Faced with the need to hire thousands quickly, the Veterans Health Administration got creative. In the space of just six weeks, it hired 12,000 new people. On average, bringing the new hires on took just a few days—normally, the hiring process takes 90 days. Certain screening processes were deferred until after individuals were already on the job, onboarding procedures were streamlined, and retired federal employees were brought back on for temporary assignments. Those involved commented that the emergency situation had helped them sweep aside many of the obstacles with which they had been tinkering for years. Not all of the changes will continue past the end of the pandemic, but many will.

And while many portray government unions as opposed to such hiring changes, it is plainly in federal workers’ interest to see the workforce expanded, as the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has stated. In fact, AFGE suggests using the VHA’s experience during the pandemic as a guide for speeding future hiring. The Biden administration can and should work hand in hand with government employee unions to expand the federal workforce while simultaneously improving the quality of existing jobs.

What should be clear is that the government has tools at its disposal to bring people on board more effectively and efficiently. While new programs and statutory tweaks may be necessary in select cases, for the most part, the means to solutions already exist. The problem is finding the political will to make it happen.

It is understandably difficult to generate public enthusiasm over technical questions of government recruiting practices or staffing numbers. The Trump administration’s concerted attacks and the fumbled response to the public-health crisis, however, present a real opportunity to demonstrate the stakes of persisting with a workforce too small to meet the nation’s needs. President Biden must seize this chance to make the public case for an expanded federal workforce ready to take on our immediate and long-term problems. The success of his presidency and of the country depend on it.

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