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Linda Bilmes and Max Stier

Freeze on federal jobs won’t reduce spending

By Linda Bilmes and Max Stier
February 10, 2010

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ONE OF the first policy pronouncements by Senator Scott Brown was his assertion that to reduce spending and cut the budget deficit, “we need to put a freeze on federal hires and federal raises because, as you know, federal employees are making twice as much as their private counterparts.’’ If only it were that simple.

Civil servants are always an easy punching bag for politicians, but Brown is incorrect about civil service salaries and his call for a hiring and pay freeze is shortsighted.

The comparison of overall pay levels is flawed because the federal workforce is older and more educated than its counterpart in the private sector.

Private sector employees include large numbers of minimum wage jobs that do not exist in government. About 20 percent of federal workers have a master’s degree, professional degree or doctorate compared to only 13 percent in the private sector. Overall, some 51 percent of federal employees have at least a college degree compared to 35 percent in the private sector.

Direct comparisons show professionals in government routinely make far less than their private-sector counterparts, especially at the higher levels within departments and agencies.

As for a large-scale hiring freeze, we have been there before. The unintended result of such freezes is to leave a federal workforce that is wildly uneven in its capabilities.

Today’s excessive reliance on contractors in the military is in large part due to President Clinton’s hiring freeze of the 1990s, and the downsizing that took place in the civilian corps at the Department of Defense.

Government today desperately needs to hire in order to replace retiring employees and fill growing workload demands. Nearly 80 percent of the new hiring is taking place in just five agencies - Defense, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the State Department.

These civil servants are caring for our wounded and returning veterans, providing essential support for our troops fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and protecting the country from terrorist threats at airports and land borders and through intelligence work.

The fundamental mistake underlying Brown’s “fix’’ is to think of the federal workforce as a cost rather than as a resource that delivers specific benefits to the nation. Failure to invest in this resource will have dire consequences.

Last month, the bipartisan Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism warned of the high likelihood of a bioterrorist attack. It criticized the administration and Congress for their “abject failure’’ to “commit to spending what is required to recruit, hire, train, and retain a qualified, motivated national security workforce.’’ A new book, “Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy,’’ by Eamon Javers, describes how the CIA allows intelligence officers to moonlight for corporations to prevent them from moving full-time to the private sector -where they could earn double or triple their government salaries.

Brown is right to take an interest in the federal workforce, but he should devote his energies to ensuring that the federal government recruits, trains and retains excellence in the civil service. This includes helping college graduates in Massachusetts locate public service jobs in government.

As Congress and the president turn their attention to the ballooning budget deficits, it is tempting to believe that a “freeze’’ on the federal workforce will help reduce federal spending. But unlike the military and the private sector, the first line-item that gets cut in government budgets is training. In the military and in the private sector, training is viewed as essential. Even last year, the best private sector companies didn’t cut their training budgets - because they know that investing in their workers leads to better performance.

Members of Congress are the equivalent of the board of directors of a corporation, and they must make sure that the federal workforce is well-trained and highly effective at doing its job. As the new senator from Massachusetts will soon learn, he and his colleagues have a lot of work to do.

Linda Bilmes, a faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School, is co-author of “The People Factor: Strengthening America by Investing in Public Service.’’ Max Stier is president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

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