News journal:The bloated federal bureaucracy is anything but

The gridlock in Washington has reached beyond crisis level. Even though one party controls both houses of Congress and the White House, nothing much is getting done.

Will there be tax reform? Doubtful. A meaningful infrastructure program? Don’t bet on it. A realistic effort to reform Obamacare? What do you think?

Without much else to do, one of the recurring messages heard in speeches on the floor of Congress is an attack on the bloated bureaucracy on the banks of the Potomac. We’ve heard that refrain so many times in the past few years that my guess is the majority of Americans believe the description is accurate.

They’re wrong. Bloated? The federal civilian workforce stands at two million, the lowest is has been since 1966. And over 84 percent of them work outside the Washington metro area.

All of the media attention these days is focused on what is generally acknowledged as the chaos in Washington, with very little meaningful work being done in either a dysfunctional White House or a hopelessly divided Congress. So how come you aren’t paying for that chaos in your daily life? How come the things we expect from government haven’t changed much?

The answer is that, no matter how incompetent leaders in Washington may be, those two million federal employees continue to do their jobs. Veteran’s hospitals continue to operate. Social Security checks get sent out on time. Homeland Security protects us. Federal prosecutors go to court. The FDA polices our food and drug supplies.

Hundreds of agencies and departments, staffed with hundreds of thousands of experienced people, continue to perform vital services that benefit you and me.

Many of them do very specialized work. Almost thirty percent of federal employees have master’s degrees or above. That is double the average of private sector firms.
Visit any federal agency you like, and you will find people who could make more money in the private sector but instead take great satisfaction in working for a greater cause.

Meet a few:

Brenda B Smith led the development and implementation of a single electronic portal for exporters and importers to submit information on shipments that cross U.S. borders, saving government and businesses time and money.

Nat Wood created an easy-to-use online resource to help victims of identity theft quickly report the crime, stop additional fraudulent activity and begin the recovery process.

Lisa Mazzuca developed a new generation of aircraft distress beacons that are more likely to survive a plane crash and aid rescuers in finding victims faster.

Timothy P. Camus led a multiagency investigation and public awareness campaign to stop a massive fraud that conned thousands of Americans into paying millions of dollars in bogus tax bills.

Flora M. Jordan designed new, lighter body armor that is just as protective as existing equipment and can be adjusted for smaller physiques, giving war-fighters greater mobility and reducing long-term health effects.

Rory A. Cooper designed innovative wheelchairs and other assistive technology equipment that has greatly improved the mobility and quality of life for hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans and other Americans.

They are many like them, and they are all federal bureaucrats, all doing work vital to a healthy functioning society. We have always taken them for granted.

But there is a real possibility that what we have long taken for granted may be coming to an end. For a number of reasons, we will probably lose the best and most experienced members of our federal workforce within a very few years.

Some of them will go simply because they cannot adjust to working in an agency whose mission has changed dramatically. If you have been trying to improve public schools or protect the environment, newly established goals and rules in your workplace may simply be too depressing for you to accept.

If that is the case, being eligible to retire makes your decision to leave easier. We are definitely going to lose some good people because of this.

We will lose far more because of a few stark statistics: This year 41.5 percent of the federal workforce is eligible to retire. And a 2015 analysis found that over 65 percent of federal senior executives will be eligible by 2020. These people, with the most experience and often with advanced degrees, are the hardest to replace.

Fewer that 7 percent of today’s federal workforce is under 30 years old. More than 45 percent are over 50.

What to do? We need a plan to retain experienced civilian federal employees who are close to retirement. At the same time we must make a major effort to attract and hire the new younger managers we will need to run the government into the future.

To do this will require extensive changes in all parts of our personnel system. The major government–wide personnel laws are decades old. The general schedule for pay, for instance, was created in 1949. Yes, 1949. The last reform of the civil service system was enacted in 1978.

We desperately need a complete overhaul of the civil service system. I have some ideas about how to do that and will share them in future columns.

For now, I think it is important to change public perceptions of the importance of an effective federal workforce. Remember Brenda Smith or Rory Cooper the next time you hear someone complain about the “bloated bureaucracy.” And think about what our lives would be like without them.

Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. senator from Delaware.