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Senior Executives Ask: Can This Government Be Saved?

To hear some senior executives tell it, the U.S. federal civil service is on life support, and its pulse grows weaker by the day. Without a sufficient number of skilled employees to oversee the effective functioning of the government, our nation suffers myriad security risks, not to mention the silent but deadly cancer of waste, fraud and abuse -- a disease which inevitably grows to consume the body unless it is stopped early on. 
The research comes from the nonprofit Senior Executives Association, and it points to a number of risk factors that may ultimately tear the civil service apart. 
Most fundamentally, there aren't enough people to do all the inherently governmental work required to serve the American people: In 1960, there were 180.67 million of us; by December 2018, that number had nearly doubled, to 329.10 million. Yet according to the study, from 1960-2017, the civil service barely increased in number--from 1.8 to 2.1 million federal workers. 
You might be thinking that this shrunken workforce is no big deal, because contractors can pick up the slack. And surely they have, at least to some extent: According to, in 2018, the U.S. government spent $200 billion on contractscombined. 
The problem, however, is that for the U.S. government to function properly, it has to limit what contractors can do, because some functions are inherently governmental by law. To oversimplify it, these include, but are not limited to decisions about:
  • Contracts
  • "Military or diplomatic action, civil or criminal judicial proceedings" 
  • Decisions that "significantly" have an impact on "the life, liberty, or property interests of private persons";
  • Hiring people; and
  • Managing U.S. money or property.
From a financial point of view, what might seem like an "easy fix" -- having a flexible, even disposable workforce that grows and shrinks depending on need -- quickly mushrooms into a nightmare. It is not illegal to seek to make a profit, and as profit-seeking entities, contractors will embed themselves into the fabric of the organizational culture. 
The report also notes that citizens' expectations of government have increased with the proliferation of digital tools. People expect a higher level of service than in the past, and with the Internet, a 24/7/365 mindset has become the norm. While nobody is suggesting that we should pay people to read email, the reality is that someone has to keep the business of government going, and answer the concerns of the people. Doing so requires a ceaseless process of reading and absorbing information, and responding quickly and accurately.
The report goes on to note that robots may well be able to do the work that people once did. But while these technologies may be useful in some settings, the reality is that they aren't quite "there" yet, and the civil servant is in fact needed to administer the functions of government, in emergencies and ordinary times alike. 
We could get into the exercise of reciting a laundry list of "things civil servants do," but the bottom line is that decimating the federal workforce while padding the pockets of contractors is unlikely to result in value for the taxpayer. 
Covering this story for, Erich Wagner highlights some other findings. First, and most troublingly, "work overload" combined with poor performance management (read: lots of punishment, few rewards) means that employees are “fatally risk averse and as a result chooses inaction to action during critical times.” 
Obviously this is a completely dangerous situation, as we all know, because an employee who is not empowered to handle a complex, sensitive, evolving and murky situation with good judgment is not just useless but dangerous.
The second issue has to do with the way in which political partisanship has infected the civil service through pervasive suspicion and derogation of the career civil servant by the political appointee. The study's authors are careful to note that this is not a partisan issue -- it's become more and more of a problem since the 1980's, they say -- but it has become a more noxious one as "each change in administration is like a hostile corporate take-over."
Of course, as in any challenging situation, we can sit around moaning and groaning about the problems we face or we can try to fix it. 
  • With respect to the partisanship problem, one simple but powerful approach might be to revisit the notion of "bridge-building," finding common ground between people whose vastly different world views are rooted in the same underlying desire to serve. (If someone actually has another agenda in mind, that is a different problem, one that will not be resolved here.)
  •  In terms of excessive spending, it would be useful for government to clearly explain to citizens where their money is going, without a proliferation of confusing spending dashboards and tools. The misperception over overspending on civil servants comes directly from conflating contractor spend with salary spend in reports such as this one from the Government Accountability Office, which resulted in numerous headlines decrying the wasted $1.5 billion per year spent on "public relations."
  • Finally, a third area to be addressed is the impact of many civil service retirements at once, which gnaws a hole directly in the institutional knowledge base of a body of employees that does not necessarily have all its information housed in an accessible way. While one can cynically say that many long-time civil servants are "part of the problem," the reality is that their knowledge makes the difference between a program that is legal, sensible and smoothly implemented and one that crashes and burns upon arrival. As new employees join up, they can and should be trained cross-functionally, and further trained on the emerging technologies that make it possible to operate effectively with a relatively lean staff. 
As a civil servant, one of the most rewarding things about my job is the appreciation people share when they receive the service their hard-earned taxpayer dollars have paid for. It would be a shame if nonstop fighting left our country bereft of the body of decent, hardworking people who make that service a reality. 

Everything Old Is New Again

On March 13, 2017, President Donald J. Trump’s Executive Order 13781 outlined a reorganization plan for the Executive Branch of the Federal government, e.g. the Civil Service.

One month later, on April 12, this was joined by OMB Memorandum M-17–22, “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government andReducing the Federal Civilian Workforce.”

These plans have never been retracted.


The OMB memorandum highlights the desired end state: A civil service that is “lean, accountable, and more efficient.” It notes that:
  • The public is dissatisfied with the current level of cost and performance associated with the Federal government.
  • Too often, “solutions” don’t actually solve problems but rather invent them — so as to make the proposed program rational.
  • Creating new programs is not a real achievement. However, it is an achievement to dismantle or fix a program that isn’t working well.

Actions to Be Taken

As part of the plan to reform the civil service, three action steps are outlined by OMB:
  • Shrink the federal workforce, at first through a hiring freeze and later through agency reform plans. “The Agency Reform Plans must include proposals for the agency’s long ­term workforce reduction plan…and be aligned with the draft agency strategic plan.”
  • Plan to improve employee performance, at least partly by eliminating excessive layers of management to allow fron-tline employees to serve the public more efficiently.
  • Develop a shared services model to provide customer service more efficiently, reducing the costs associated with working in single-agency stovepipes.
Civil service reform was envisioned to occur as part of the fiscal year 2019 budget (October 1, 2018 through September 31, 2019).


OMB asked agencies were asked to take a look at their individual missions and determine whether activities and programs underway were contributing or not. The idea was to eliminate (or restructure) anything that: 1) could be done better by the private sector, 2) wasn’t necessary 3) duplicated a service offered elsewhere in the government, 5) was inefficient, or 5) wasn’t worth the cost.

If a program was necessary but provided poor customer service, agencies were asked to improve its performance.

Key Milestones

  • February 22, 2018: The Congressional Research Service releases a report, “FY2019 Budget: Government Reorganization and Federal Workforce Reform,” summarizing how the budget proposes to implement this, including through reorganization and consolidation. The CRS report links to a fact sheet emphasizing (similar to the prior Administration) the importance of shifting toward “high-value work” and transparent, data-driven decision-making. It also talks about private sector compensation models and improved human capital management.
  • June 18, 2018: Reorganization plan is issued around four principles: “Refocus” (e.g. eliminate extraneous programs), “accountability,” “prioritize,” and “communication and coordination.”
  • September 12, 2018: White House event hosted by OMB and the Mitre Corp., with “some 150 agency alumni, corporate specialists and academics…for an off-the-record symposium on fixing what ails the federal workforce.” OMB Deputy Director Margaret Weichert calls for integrating “passion and rhetoric and profound commitment with the actual facts.”
  • October 11, 2018: The Office of Personnel Management announces streamlined hiring for a range of science and technology-related careers, particularly IT, cybersecurity, and STEM.
  • December 22, 2018: The Federal government partially shuts down for about a month due to lack of agreement over the FY19 budget. This generates headlines about the difficult circumstances encountered by federal employees who were not at work, and the value of federal employees in general.
  • January 2019: The Congressionally-funded National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service releases its first report on Americans’ impressions of the civil service. Based on research conducted in 2018, the report noted that: “recruiting and hiring” practices were perceived as poor and that civil servants themselves were “frustrated” by continually being “portrayed and perceived as being ineffective.” People felt that the human resources system “is too slow, fails to accurately assess job applicants, (and) contains a variety of inflexible hiring preferences.” Officials themselves expressed frustration that “it is difficult to recruit and retain workers with high-demand skills…due in part to competitive market pressures.”

Back to the Future

Because civil service reform is efficiency-oriented, proposals to achieve it tend to sound very much the same from Administration to Administration.

For example, in 2016, a writer for noted 11 areas of emphasis, among them “evidence-based” (e.g., data-driven) programs; “reorganization”; “streamlining”; “shared services”; “agency priority goals”; and an emphasis on cybersecurity to the point of establishing a Federal chief information security officer.

Way back when, in 1993, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government aimed to drive up efficiency, drive down costs, and promote “initiative and empowerment.”

In fact, going back more than 130 years to 1887, President Woodrow Wilson stated:
“Civil service reform must, after the accomplishment of its first purpose, expand into efforts to improve, not the personnel only, but also the organization and methods of our government offices….
“It is the object of administrative study to discover, first, what government can properly and successfully do, and secondly, how it can do these proper things with the utmost possible efficiency and at the least possible cost either of money or of energy.”
Everything old is new again.


By Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author’s own. Public domain. Photo credit: PIRO4D via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Let's End "Personal Branding"​ Now

"That coffee travel mug you’re carrying — ah, you’re a Starbucks woman!....You’re branded, branded, branded, branded.... take a lesson from the big brands, a lesson that’s true for anyone who’s interested in what it takes to stand out and prosper in the new world of work." - Tom Peters, "The Brand Called You"

Where were you the first time you read "The Brand Called You," by Tom Peters?

That must-read article for marketers, that foundational rock of personal branding, that permission slip, in retrospect, to become a selfish and self-indulgent fake?

Yes, I remember that article vividly.

I remember how much I loved, loved, loved to the core the idea that I could reinvent myself, not just once but over and again, and that it all came down to imagination.

And no longer did I have to serve as a serf of the Big Company that had taken me under its wing. No, I could be as big a star as I wanted to be, I could shine as brightly as the collected IQ of all of those branding heavyweights I worked with.

That is, if only I had enough creativity and focus, and enough...confidence.

You mean I don't have to put in my time?

To the restlessly ambitious person that I was, this notion that I did not have to "listen to my elders" was incredibly appealing.

All I need is savvy. Great!

I sat transfixed looking at the screen. The article was in Fast Company, and the graphics were so good then, just as they are now. Crisp, glossy, professional and cool.

That is who I want to be, I thought to myself. The CEO of my life.

Hook, line, and sinker.

We fell for all that, meaning "we" the collective business community.

It took awhile, sure.

But not very long, in relative time.

And before you knew it, there I was, "rocking my personal brand," telling YOU how to "rock YOUR personal brand," high on the ego of it all.

But slowly, like a tire that starts out pumped then runs over a nail, the wind went out of our collective sails.

Soon we were left with a cheap facsimile of what "personal branding" was supposed to be -- the manufacturing of an image that largely mirrored our highest aspirations in life.

Somewhere, along the way, the point of this exercise became the image itself, and not the substance that truly gave the image equity.

Because the notion of image over substance is so appealing, we gradually became a world where "optics" and the 24-hour news cycle are pretty much all that matters.

We sold out substance for "clicks."

In the process, the all-important metric of success became...the label. (Or at least, the potential one.)

How is the customer feeling about that? Are we striking the right note?

What demographic does this person fit into?

We have to appeal to a niche; can we call that look a niche?

In a world where valuable labels are all-important, the very opposite of value is to care nothing about your image at all.

But the talented ones, the ones who have a lot of substance to offer, reject labels utterly.

These are the thoughtful people, the original ones, the odd, the strange, the "controversial" -- the ones we cannot immediately cast into a "type."

Unfortunately for our economy, the emphasis on branding and image, as opposed to substance and value, leaves our capacity for true innovation in the dust.

Because we're so focused on providing how-to advice to "image wannabes."

They have the look of value, while the actual people with superior abilities are spending their time actually doing stuff.

Not reading magazines that tell them how to "act like a person with value."

They're the ones we need to be talking to.

The ones who jump at any opportunity to contribute their talents, in ways that enrich us all.


Public domain. Opinions are the author's own. Photo by Goran H. via Pixabay (Creative Commons; No Attribution Required)