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Time for another 'War on Waste'?

By Ed O'Keefe

Bill Clinton declared "the era of big government is over" in 1996, but the government's getting bigger again. (Post)

President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget would expand the size of the federal workforce to more than 2.1 million workers, well beyond the government's size when Bill Clinton declared in 1996 that "the era of big government is over."

Most of the hires would come at the Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. The budget also sets aside money to hire more federal contract acquisition officers and calls for cutting contracts by "insourcing" certain "inherently governmental functions."

Paul Light, a leading scholar on the federal government and presidential appointment process, has warned in recent days that the proposals could become a political wedge issue, potentially jeopardizing long-needed funding and staff increases, as the growing tea party movement within the Republican Party seeks to organize around the traditional GOP concern about the size of the federal government. (Shorter mentions of his concerns have also appeared here and here.)

"The hires are legitimate, but sooner or later conservatives are going to look at these details and will bang away on Obama and the Democrats,” he said in a recent interview.

Massachusetts Sen.-elect Scott Brown campaigned on the issue of freezing federal salaries, arguing the government should hold off on expansion plans until it found a way to control costs and the debt.

It's an easier issue to exploit and explain than concerns about the ballooning national debt, Light said. Skeptical voters less familiar with fiscal policy are more likely understand and can be led to believe that the federal government wastes a great amount of money.

Similar threats in the 1990s led the Clinton administration to launch Al Gore's "reinventing government" project, Light said.

Now it's time for Democrats to do it again, Light said. Start with the presidential appointments process by cutting the number of political positions in half, a move that could save taxpayers at least $200 million annually.

"That’s not chicken feed," Light said. “This has been around for awhile, it’s one of the hidden problems in the sluggish appointment process. You’ve just got too many people to push through the process.”

Then look at retirements: Cut one-third of federal positions being vacated by retirees anywhere between GS 11 and GS 15, which could save another $5 billion annually.

Then lawmakers can look at streamlining the bureaucracy, contractors and contracting pay. Oh, and that ballooning debt and deficit.

"There’s an agenda here for Democrats and they need to get on the offense before Republicans put them on the defense," Light said.

What do you think? The comments section eagerly awaits your thoughts.

By Ed O'Keefe  | February 3, 2010; 12:02 PM ET
Categories:  What Would You Do?  
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From Paul C. Light:

I should note that Senator-elect Scott Brown has already started moving on the "new war on waste" by telling Barbara Walters that the federal government should impose a hiring freeze. It is exactly the wrong thing to do.

My view is that we need to capture some of the jobs being vacated by my fellow baby boomers and push the resources down through the hierarchy to the front lines where federal employees are stretched across an ever-growing workload. We should not measure the size of government by headcount, but by outputs and outcomes. That said, any conversation about headcount must include the contractor workforce, which I estimate outnumbers the federal workforce by three to one.

I do not want to cut federal jobs, but do want to see more capacity where the services are delivered. I don't know how we can do so without confronting the growing pressure from the Tea Party and others on stopping government's growth, measured through workforce or budget.

Joe Davidson, Ed O'Keefe, Al Kamen are all doing a terrific job monitoring all this. They are on totally on top of it. Thanks for their work.

Paul C. Light

Posted by: paullight | February 3, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

I am a government employee who is a program analyst with the responsibility of conducting financial analyses to mitigate fraud, waste, and abuse. I have been a contracts manager and program analyst for more than 30 years and I am one of the baby boomers who will be retiring shortly. I notice that the Federal government has done away with the concept of "training." There are no intern programs as there were when I entered the Federal government back in 1980 after becoming an Air Force veteran. I was here when the Clinton administration streamlined government by doing away with its standard operating procedures and work guides, particularly in human resources. They also did away with the classification specialist career field leaving a void in the area of job descriptions. The new Federal human resources system is sad and is the cause the major inefficiencies that plague government service. The other problem is the top-heavy management system within the Federal government where the managers (GS-15 and SES) do not keep up with the current management concepts such as strategic thinking, project management, earned-value management, etc. They attend "lip-service" classes where they learn the most elementary management concepts. The employees who are on the critical path with the public are stymied by managerial decisions that are not properly analyzed or shared. I have been working in an office where the last standard operating procedure was issued in 1984. Things have changed so much that the functional specialist in my office are actually brainstorming their processes. There are no standards that can be used to provide interns with guidance; they are essentially on their own at the whim of improperly trained managers. The problem with contracting out is that it costs the Federal government much more money because each job is a task order. The tax-payer is still paying for salaries (which often exceed those of the Federal employee); overhead; social security; training; taxes; etc. The proper application of A76 is no longer respected or honored when there is a desire to contract out. An example of contracting gone amuck is current DOD contracting for base grounds landscaping and the military cook. These are contracted out when they used to be performed by the enlisted personnel. So much is contracted out in DOD that there is no incentive for young people to enlist because they do not recieve any useful training or experience. Haliburton is the poster company for fraud, waste, and abuse in contracting but the Government has yet to tally the taxpayer money that has been thrown away.

Posted by: avatarcreates | February 3, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Ah yes; HILLARY got rid of Vice-President Gore for two years with the creation of his very important Commission on EFFICIENCY IN GOVERNMENT.

"On September 7 Vice President Al Gore presented the Report of the National Performance Review, promising to reduce both the budget deficit and the "trust deficit" by reinventing government. The theme is that government officials and civil servants should be treated like responsible adults. The government should rely more on incentives and less on controls, increasing flexibility in exchange for increased accountability. The regulation of federal managers and the level of unfunded mandates on state and local governments should be massively reduced. No longer would agencies be required to purchase supplies and support services through monopoly purchasing agencies. Bureaucracy, paperwork, and waste would be reduced by increased competition, both from private suppliers and from other agencies. (David Osborne, the author of Reinventing Government, apparently read my 1971 book, Bureaucracy and Representative Government.) Government would operate more like a business."

National Review, Nov 1, 1993 by William A. Niskanen

1993! 1993! you go GORE..reinvent government for us; make it efficient and effective.

Surely WAPO must have a few copies of this tome signed by that famous efficiency expert AL GORE, Jr.

Posted by: Common_Cents1 | February 3, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

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