Federal workers become 'punching bag' in political wrangling

John Palguta discusses why feds seem to have become everyone's punching bag, in addition to the potential consequences of a smaller federal workforce and the role of federal managers in a time of tight budgets.

The future of the federal workforce is a hot topic lately, ever since President Barack Obama proposed a two-year pay freeze for all federal civilian employees.

In the past couple of months, that pay freeze has gone into effect, and House Republicans have introduced bills that would shrink the size of the federal workforce and require feds to take a two-week furlough to reduce the national deficit. The bills have sparked disagreements among lawmakers, labor unions and feds themselves. The argument over whether the federal government can withstand a cut in its workforce continues, as does the debate about whether feds are overpaid.

John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service, has been closely following those and other issues of federal workforce management for more than three decades. Before joining the organization in 2001, Palguta was a member of the federal Senior Executive Service and was director of policy and evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board.

He met recently with Staff Writer Alyah Khan to talk about why feds seem to have become everyone’s punching bag, in addition to the potential consequences of a smaller workforce and the role of federal managers in a time of tight budgets.

FCW: Why do you think feds have become a target of cost-cutting measures?

John Palguta: It’s very unfortunate. Federal employees have become somewhat the punching bag in part because they are an easy target. And there has been some demagoguery there. Some people say that federal employees are overpaid. They have ideological reasons for pushing that information in part because their agenda is reducing the size of government, and that’s a very amorphous target.

It’s difficult to reduce government and reduce the cost of government the right way. The right way is: If we can’t afford the benefits, services and programs government does, we’ve got to figure out which ones to eliminate or reduce.

Some folks want to do the easy across-the-board thing of “let’s cut 10 percent of the workforce,” which is really a totally disingenuous approach. That’s the easy target: “Well, government costs too much, so we can [use] the ‘starve the beast’ strategy. If we simply reduce the resources available to government, government will have to become smaller, it will have to do less.”

The flaw in that is even if you were able to be successful in reducing the size of the workforce or federal pay, that has a small, tiny impact on reducing the deficit.

The bottom line is federal employees are an easy target. But it’s a misplaced target. It’s not the problem. The size of the workforce, the pay and benefits of federal employees are not part of the problem. Even if we get reductions in pay [and] in the workforce, it’s not going to balance the budget.

FCW: What is your response to people who say the federal workforce could stand to be reduced — maybe not by 10 or 15 percent as lawmakers have proposed, but by 3 to 5 percent?

John Palguta:  It just doesn’t make any sense at all to talk about reducing the workforce as your starting point. The logical starting point, which is what is frustrating for many feds, is let’s first decide what we want government to do. Then [we need to] understand what’s the workforce we need to do it properly.

Also, if we can’t afford for government to do everything we want it to do, what things are we willing to have it not do? Or what things should it do less of?

Now the other problem with focusing on the size of government is that there’s misinformation out there. We need to base our discussions on the facts. There’s this notion that the federal workforce has been increasing.

But the federal workforce is smaller now than at the end of the Reagan administration. We have about the same number of employees on the payroll as we did in 1966. Government workforce has not been a growth industry.

FCW: How would you describe the potential consequences of requiring nonmilitary federal employees to take furloughs or reducing the size of the workforce?

John Palguta: It’s going to vary by agency, and the consequences would be multiple.

There is no guarantee a furlough is going to save you money. If you work for the U.S. Passport Agency, you still have to process those passports. If you don’t have people to do it, you may have to have people who are not furloughed on overtime. And you can end up paying more.

One result [of potential workforce cuts] is some work doesn’t get done. We could have another situation where something bad happens [such as the recent BP oil spill]. And government doesn’t have an adequate response, and then we’re going to have people beating up on government, asking why it didn’t do a better job.

That’s one thing. Then there’s the impact on the federal workforce. I spent over 30 years in government. The notion of the lazy federal bureaucrat is a stereotype that’s a falsehood. If you’re constantly beaten up in the court of public opinion and you’re hearing public debates about the fact that you’re overpaid, you’re underworked and all that — that’s going to start having an impact on your motivation.

FCW: How can federal managers keep morale up in this environment?

John Palguta: Managers and supervisors are extremely important. An agency head has to make sure he has the very best managers possible.

Let’s start with the first-line supervisor. There are several things he or she needs to do, especially in these times. First, you’ve got to work hard to recruit and hire the best people possible for the job to be done.

Second, you have to invest in your workers. Just because money is going to be tight doesn’t mean you cut out all training. You’ve got to invest in your workers by making sure they have a chance for personal and professional development related to the job.

You have to invest in getting them good leaders and good supervisors. Give your managers good workforce management tools and make sure they have flexibility in terms of rewarding employees. Take a look at what your managers have in terms of nonmonetary recognition, [such as] the ability to give somebody a day off in lieu of money.

People come to government because they want to make a difference. As a supervisor, you have to make sure people understand the connection between what they do and the mission.

In addition, with the president talking about reorganizing the federal government, it’s important to involve your employees [in that effort]. As in any other workplace, the [reorganization] is going to have people worried about their jobs. So communication is very important. As a supervisor or a manager, let employees know what you know when you know it.