"Morale has never been lower": Federal gov't employment declines in first Trump year

Promise kept? Republicans have long promised to reduce the size of federal bureaucracies, a promise also adopted by Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign. According to the Washington Post, Trump made significant progress in trimming the number of federal employees and has put a Trump-era stamp on the bureaucracy:

Nearly a year into his takeover of Washington, President Trump has made a significant down payment on his campaign pledge to shrink the federal bureaucracy, a shift long sought by conservatives that could eventually bring the workforce down to levels not seen in decades.

By the end of September, all Cabinet departments except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Interior had fewer permanent staff than when Trump took office in January — with most shedding many hundreds of employees, according to an analysis of federal personnel data by The Washington Post.

The diminishing federal footprint comes after Trump promised in last year’s campaign to “cut so much your head will spin,” and it reverses a boost in hiring under President Barack Obama. The falloff has been driven by an exodus of civil servants, a diminished corps of political appointees and an effective hiring freeze.

One quote from the story got a lot of attention on social media from conservatives celebrating this win:

“Morale has never been lower,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers at more than 30 agencies. “Government is making itself a lot less attractive as an employer.”

The White House disputes that characterization, claiming that morale has actually rebounded from last year in an annual survey. In fact, scores for 2017 showed a third straight year of improved morale and the highest ratings in years:

The 2017 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ® data show a 2.1-point jump in employee engagement compared to 2016, for a score of 61.5 out of 100. This represents the largest yearly increase in the history of the Best Places to Work rankings, the highest overall score since 2011, and builds on a 2.5-point improvement during the previous two years.

The steady increase in employee engagement, which we define as the satisfaction and commitment of federal workers and their willingness to put forth discretionary effort to achieve results, follows a concerted effort by agencies across government to improve how employees view their leaders, supervisors and work experience.

Maintaining this momentum will require a strong commitment from the Trump administration to continue to improve the employee experience – from training and developing leaders to ensuring employees have a positive work environment and the resources they need to do their jobs. Having a highly-motivated and engaged workforce is critical to a well-functioning government and the success of our country.

Perhaps Reardon doesn’t have as good a read on his own members as he thinks. It might also be that Reardon has an interest in promoting the idea that reductions in the federal workforce are an unmitigated negative and has partisan reasons for painting it that way in a Republican administration. At least thus far, the actual data — as opposed to anecdotal contributions — suggests that workforce reductions do not necessarily translate to poor morale.

However, that largely depends on how the reductions are accomplished, which also raises the question as to why anyone would want to cheer on poor morale. Putting aside the fact that morale seems to be holding up anyway at the moment, reductions by default (attrition, elimination of resources) are similar in both the public and private sectors. Employers in the latter will sometimes try to reduce workforces by attrition; I’ve seen it happen at some of the companies for which I’ve worked either as rank-and-file or in management. The problem with accomplishing this through wage and hiring freezes, as well as buyouts or the threat of them, is that inevitably the best employees tend to leave first. Why? They tend to have the most value in the open market and can get hired quickly by other companies. That leaves a smaller staff handling the same workloads with lower skill and experience levels, and the pressures to perform will erode morale over time. Also, the quality level of products and services from these organizations will erode, which will then put pressure on for more reductions.

For the most part, this approach appeals to executives who don’t want to pay for unemployment compensation, or who simply don’t have the courage to conduct performance-based layoffs. In the public sector, that’s more complicated; civil service protections delay or prevent performance-based terminations, and union rules make it even tougher with last-hired-first-fired rules that protect seniority. The way around that is to appoint reform-minded executives in these bureaucracies to change regulations so as to make entire functions unnecessary, trimming the bureaucracy intelligently, so that resources can be saved and directed to those departments whose work is truly necessary.

Reducing the federal bureaucracy is an excellent overall goal, but to do that intelligently, one has to reduce the mandates those bureaucrats serve. It’s not enough to merely starve the beast because someone will come along soon enough to feed it again.  That requires strong personnel in all policy-making arenas who are committed to ending empire-building within the federal government in order to end the programs that intrude on personal liberty and generate inefficiencies and corruption. Perhaps we can consider 2017 a good start on a process that needs significant improvement. If the White House begins filling the executive positions with people truly committed to the mission of permanently reducing the federal Leviathan, and if Republicans in Congress can unite to do the same, these reductions could be a lasting monument to conservative governance — and lead to greater morale among those government employees whose work really does matter.