Max Stier is president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service.
President Trump is correct when he says the federal government must be more responsive to the needs of the American people. Unfortunately, his directive Monday to freeze federal hiring will have the opposite effect of what is intended.
It makes no sense to freeze a problem in place rather than fix it. Although the president’s order to downsize the federal workforce through attrition has some exceptions, it is unclear exactly how it will be interpreted and applied. The order will not improve government performance, but could bar the door to hiring employees who are needed to prevent cyberattacks on federal computer systems, ensure the safety of our food supply and air quality, and provide important services to small businesses, farmers, seniors, veterans and students.
If our new president examined previous federal hiring freezes, he would find they hampered, not helped, government effectiveness. The Government Accountability Office, for example, reported that the hiring freezes imposed by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan “disrupted agency operations and, in some cases, increased the cost to the government” because they “ignored individual agencies’ missions, workload, and staffing requirements.”
More recent workforce reductions at the Internal Revenue Service — 13,000 employees, including 5,000 enforcement personnel, between 2010 and 2014 — cost the government $2 billion in revenue in 2015, according to IRS estimates. At his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s choice to be treasury secretary, acknowledged that deep staffing cutbacks have hurt the IRS’s ability to do its job. Mnuchin said he expects to convince Trump that staffing levels should increase because if “we add people, we make money.”
At the Social Security Administration, sizable budget cuts forced the agency to impose a hiring freeze starting in 2011. This step led to the deterioration of customer service and greatly increased wait times for those seeking disability benefits. The same is true for immigration courts, where a hiring freeze under the budget sequester from 2011 to 2014 prevented adding judges and led to the current enormous backlog and lengthy delays in dealing with deportation and refugee cases.
The move by the president will penalize veterans, who now make up more than 40 percent of all newly hired federal employees, and will further stymie the ability to attract a young generation of talent to public service. Today, for example, there are almost three times more information technology employees in government over the age of 60 than under 30, and that trend will only worsen under Trump’s directive.
Trump should direct attention to making sure that the public’s resources are used more efficiently by having a more effective public-sector workforce. To do that, the president should:
• Select political appointees with demonstrated success managing large organizations, equip them to operate in the unique federal environment, and ensure that they have performance plans that define success and demand accountability.
• Fix the broken hiring process, which is complicated, opaque and slow, and which discourages highly qualified people from entering government service. On average, it takes at least three times longer for federal agencies to hire workers than it does in the private sector. That is unacceptable.
• Modernize the rules governing talent, including improving the government’s ability to deal more effectively with poor performers.
• Place an emphasis on improving the delivery of government services and interactions with citizens. Americans have seen tremendous customer service improvements, such as online banking, in many aspects of their lives, but government has struggled to keep pace. That can and must change.
• Develop cross-agency initiatives to achieve goals, breaking down separate government fiefdoms, overlapping jurisdictions and duplicative programs. None of today’s big challenges, from cybersecurity to rebuilding our infrastructure, can be solved by any single agency acting alone.
There are many constructive ways to reform government and improve how it functions. But Trump’s opening salvo toward the civil service is a shot in the wrong direction and will end up backfiring by making government less, not more, effective.