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Giuliani, Sarkozy and the Civil Service

Some of Rudy Giuliani's ideas on civil service appear to have been the brainchild of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. (Reuters).

On the campaign trail, Rudolph W. Giuliani makes a bold promise to Republican primary voters concerned about wasteful spending in Washington: more than 40 percent of federal workers will retire in the next decade, he says, and as president he will fill only half of those slots, cutting the bureaucracy by 20 percent and saving $25 billion.

"I'd cut out half the positions," he told voters in Exeter, N.H. last month, according to New Hampshire Public Radio. "How do you do that? Just with the idea that we now have computers and technology. And businesses have made all these cuts. Businesses now operate with fewer people and they're more productive."

Giuliani points to his experience as New York mayor limiting the size of the city's workforce, and also invokes Ronald Reagan, who imposed a hiring freeze shortly after his election and sought to shut down the Department of Education. But the framing of his pledge was also inspired in part by a more distant model: the new president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. Campaigning last winter, Sarkozy pledged to fill only half of the French civil service vacancies created by retirements. Laying out his platform before the conservative Heritage Foundation in May shortly after the French election, Giuliani echoed Sarkozy's pledge as one of his own planks as he hailed Sarkozy's victory, holding up a copy of the New York Post that called Sarkozy "A French Rudy." He linked his civil service proposal and Sarkozy's again last week on CNBC.

But experts on the U.S. government question how Giuliani could achieve anywhere close to the cutbacks he envisions. Unlike the vast French bureaucracy, they argue, America's is relatively lean. The Clinton Administration's "reinventing government" push reduced the federal civilian workforce by more than 300,000 to 1.8 million, and, even with recent expansions in airport screeners and homeland security, it remains below 1.9 million. Far greater growth has come in the ranks of government contractors, which grew by 50 percent between 2002 and 2005 to 7.6 million, according to Paul Light of New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

If anything, experts say, a strong case could be made that many of the government failures of recent years -- from Hurricane Katrina to toxic imports to veterans' care -- could be attributed to a lack of manpower. Light said it might make sense to take the opportunity of upcoming retirements to move more government positions from upper level slots to the front lines where services are actually delivered, in places like the passport agency, FEMA, and Social Security. But simply holding positions open across the board will only degrade government performance, he said.
"It has the same effect as a drive-by shooting -- you don't know who you're going to hit, what impact you'll have," Light said.

Carolyn Ban, a public administration expert at the University of Pittsburgh, challenged Giuliani to specify where his cuts would occur (Giuliani has simply said that he would seek cuts in every agency, while likely exempting the military and homeland security -- a big exemption, considering that those areas account for half the federal civilian workforce.) "So we're going to have fewer people in the FDA, fewer in consumer product safety, fewer in the EPA?" Ban said. "Do we close the national parks?"

The University of Albany's Frank Thompson added that even if one assumed that much of the government's work should be outsourced, there remained a need to have enough federal manpower to oversee contractors, to avoid situations like the controversy surrounding Blackwater in Iraq. "It's always popular to say we've got too many federal servants, and as a political strategy it has some purchase," he said. "But as a recommendation for improving governance, it's a really bad idea."

History suggests, meanwhile, that for all Giuliani's zeal, government supervisors need not quake in their boots over coming cuts. Despite Reagan's efforts, the workforce grew under his tenure, thanks to the military buildup. While Giuliani made cuts in some areas of city government, with the hiring of additional teachers and police officers the total workforce actually grew slightly by the time he left office. And as for Sarkozy -- he has already lowered his sights, to cutting only one in three vacated slots.

--Alec MacGillis

By Post Editor  |  November 7, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
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