Advice to the administration on managing the headcount in defense

Ignore today’s mild weather, Washington. Winter is coming. The hiring freeze is in place, and only the uniformed military is really exempt. The Pentagon has just released details of how it will conduct its next reduction in force (RIF, they say), which means stand by for reduction in force. This round of civil service head-chopping may be different. In accordance with the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, who gets cut will be determined by relative performance, not longevity. Horrors—that’s just as with the contractors! Or as Raymond Stantz once said, “I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.” So what next? Hopefully the hiring freeze will be brief, because the civilian workforce can’t be overhauled without bringing in fresh talent.

In a recent research note for Capital Alpha Partners (January 25, 2017), Atlantic Council member Byron Callan pointed out that the plan for what to do is not fully in place. President Trump’s executive order of January 23 freezes federal hiring for only ninety days—until the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) can better figure out how to reduce staff through attrition. In response to questions during his confirmation hearing from Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, OMB director-designate Congressman Mick Mulvaney said that he didn’t know that one-third of the federal workforce is eligible for retirement by the end of 2019. That sounds about right, though, and if you’re aiming to reduce the size of the Defense Department’s workforce, it’s good news.

Mulvaney also did not realize that the size of the federal workforce overall is smaller today than it was during the Reagan Administration. That sounds better, but some of that reduction has come because today’s military is a lot smaller than the Cold War force was. Moreover, plenty of true-religion conservatives will tell you that the Reagan Revolution remains unfulfilled. Beating back governmental sprawl is often a challenging task; as Callan further noted, the GAO had found plenty of holes in the several Carter-Reagan hiring freezes—in its report on the issue way back in 1982. Fairly, though, the staff at the GAO may not be entirely disinterested—as Bill Niskanen famously wrote, budget-maximizing behavior is a salient conceit of bureaucrats.

One might think that a smaller federal workforce would result in more opportunity for outsourcing, but Trump’s order specifically warns against hiring out to fill the voids. That’s also good news, as the massive intake of “institutional support contractors” has created a dysfunctional caste system within many federal agencies. This is a problem entirely imposed by the federal government’s own dysfunctional hiring processes. The lesser point is confusion over how many staff the federal government effectively employs—is the headcount really lower than in the 1980s? The greater point is that too much contracting out separates too much of the talent from authority—functions that are “inherently governmental” still require a general schedule (GS)-something to undertake. Imagine a shop in which only certain staff actually have the keys to the cash register, and you’ll grasp the nature of the sand in the gears.

I previously wrote on this topic when this issue of performance-based reductions first arose (“Fire the Non-Performers?,” June 11, 2015). Back then, I cited a line by former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle from back in February 2002:

    And all the brilliant private-sector managers who say if only I were running the Defense Department, I know what I’d do? Well, the first thing they’d discover is the Civil Service Commission wouldn’t allow them to fire the 50,000 non-performers as they would have done in their own business, for example.

Really reducing the Pentagon workforce will be a challenging task, because every office needs to be effectively searched for who’s not doing a great job, and who’s not doing a job that really needs to be done. It’s also an important job, because the layering-on of people and offices over the years has created a bureaucratic monster in which simple decisions can take months to effect. So here’s one bit of advice to the new administration, in the interests of efficient administration of defense. Make no small plans at the OMB. Get to work on that plan for eliminating the deadwood, the unimportant, and the sclerotic. Just don’t let this hiring freeze linger. Because until fresh hiring can resume, you’ll get none of the new talent you need.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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