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White House announces end to hiring freeze; morale damage, questions remain

On April 12, the Office of Management and Budget lifted the administration’s freeze, while at the same time outlining specific actions agencies are directed to take to cut or, in some cases, end “outdated” and “ineffective” programs.

The current White House came into office promising to slash the size of the federal government—and specifically, from the start of its term, to impose a hiring freeze.

Sure enough, just three days into office, on Jan. 23, President Trump unleashed his freeze order on a concerned federal workforce.

“I hereby order a freeze on the hiring of Federal civilian employees to be applied across the board in the executive branch,” President Trump’s executive order stated. “As part of this freeze, no vacant positions existing at noon on January 22, 2017, may be filled and no new positions may be created, except in limited circumstances.”

Those “limited circumstances” exceptions went on to become, in reality, fairly wide-ranging—at least compared to the more expansive rhetoric of the campaign trail. The order itself exempted the military and any position at any agency deemed by its secretary or director as “necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.”

But, on April 12, the Office of Management and Budget lifted the administration’s freeze, while at the same time outlining specific actions agencies are directed to take to cut or, in some cases, end “outdated” and “ineffective” programs.

Indeed, ending the freeze is in reality just part of the new, evolving White House plan. In that plan, issued in March, the president is asking all agency heads to develop a variety of ways to reduce the federal workforce.

“The proposed plan shall include, as appropriate, recommendations to eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs, and to merge functions,” the executive order to agencies said.

From the beginning, in late January, major federal employee unions—including the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union—spoke out against the freeze.

“It’s going to impact my neighbors. It’s going to impact my family,” NTEU President Tony Reardon said in a January statement. “If agencies cannot provide the services that Americans need, that’s a problem.”

And—also from the beginning—the exceptions to the hiring freeze plan grew.

Experts weigh in

Don Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a fellow at Brookings Institution, told FEND the brief, ballyhooed hiring freeze never was—and never was going to be—what it was cracked up to be.

“Hiring freezes are announced, generally speaking, to get everyone’s attention,” Kettl told FEND. “They’re like a big two-by-four a new president throws around to get some reaction.”

“The only question, once a freeze is in place, is how quickly the freeze will melt,” Kettl added.

“One of the most interesting things about that is how quickly there was this pressure to define exempted jobs,” Kettl told FEND. “There are many areas where a freeze makes no sense, in terms of normal public goals—that is, where there is no real way to make do with less.”

Kettl offered examples of indispensable personnel—and therefore a need for continued hiring, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, which needs doctors and nurses. Additionally, there are many indispensable areas of federal law enforcement—including the FBI. Finally, he said, there’s the FAA’s inflexible need for an adequate number of air traffic controllers , and TSA’s for screeners.

It was to fill jobs like these that there was instant pressure from many quarters, Kettl said.

Anirban Basu, an economist and CEO of the Sage Policy Group, offered what he sees as a balanced view. That is, he says that the government and the country would benefit from careful, selective reductions in federal workforce.

“The notion is out there that the nation needs some hiring freezes because the nation has a $20 trillion national debt,” Basu told FEND. “It is also facing, further down the road, pending insolvency of Medicare and Social Security.”

“I agree that this is out of control, and at some point, there will be a day of reckoning on all this—if it is not corrected,” Basu continued.

The problem for Basu is that he does not see such care being taken in President Trump’s hiring freeze—and the more selective hiring freezes by agency that will remain in effect with the anticipated deep cuts likely coming down the road from the administration and its allies on Capitol Hill.

“But we need to balance the budget —and not by destroying employee morale, or by diminishing government productivity,” he told FEND.

“Now the elimination of the freeze—as we may have here—would allow agencies to fill open positions,” he continued. “Some will say that means spending more money, as those positions are occupied and paying people. But you have to also acknowledge that it will increase agency productivity, and it will also boost morale.”

“The end of the freeze could ultimately translate to more bang for the buck, for the American taxpayer—and be better for the workforce, too,” Basu said.

Reductions in workforce still loom: the problem of attrition

The White House’s memo ending the freeze, effectively outlines a new strategy—“a new proposal that sort of outlines a different strategy,” as Kettl calls it.

“They are not calling outright for attrition, but it could be part of it,” Kettl said. “The problem with attrition is that if you start talking about doing this, you are almost certainly quickly get a mismatch between the skills you need in your employees—and what you have left after you start the attrition.”

In short, Kettl said, people leave from precisely where you do not want to see them go.

Half of all air traffic controllers, for instance, are currently eligible to retire. Kettl recommends against pushing them out.

“Air traffic controllers—your senior ones? No, you can’t let them go,” Kettl continued. “No, pretty quickly you get out of synch. So, what the plan should call for—and what is partly in there—is workforce management, which is much more sensible.”

Another issue is that “the people who leave voluntarily are those who would have the best skills and can get another job most easily,” as Kettl put it. “You don’t want to do that. You could end up with an unskilled workforce—all because you put in a freeze and then try to downsize through attrition. These just aren’t good tools.”

“In the end, no strategy of attrition is likely to get you where you need to go,” Kettl told FEND. “It is the easiest way, it seems—no firing, no big fight—but it also guaranteed not to produce a good, effective outcome.”

Better ways forward?

Many experts have slammed the morale- and productivity-damaging aspects of the announced freeze, and the insidious attrition that may—or may not—follow the end of a hard freeze.

Kettl, for one, agrees with those critics. And he offered multiple better ways, in his opinion, to downsize government—ways that he says will lead to better outcomes.

The executive branch could find other efficiencies. For example, Kettl said, the White House could try to combine multiple agencies that have similar work to do—thus reducing certain jobs in the combination.

Agencies could also focus on making cuts by way of consolidating certain tasks, Kettl said. For instance, certain contract management and audit functions could be joined. One such area is shared services—that is, having some agencies share the tasks of new hiring or procurement of new equipment, so as to find new efficiencies, he said.

“You can also combine operations and offices in all kinds of ways to reduce costs,” he said.

“It’s very clear they are going to try to reduce the size of the workforce, Kettl concluded of the Trump White House. “It is just not clear yet how they are going to try to get there.”

View the OMB memo at https://www.scribd.com/document/344966998/OMB-Memo-on-Reforming-the-Federal-Government-and-Reducing-the-Federal-Civilian-Workforce.

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