- NEWS & EVENTS
Has the U.S. Federal Government reached a point where critical operations might fail in stressful events that are likely to occur? This was this project’s animating question. Based on the data collected in this study, it appears the answer to these critical questions is yes.
A weakening in the capacity of the government’s workforce and its organizational structures is plainly evident, and so is a perceptible loss of collective resilience to detect and respond to adverse events. To test this conclusion, this study considered workforce trends given several dozen potential scenarios, ranging between those that are virtually certain to occur in the next year to other scenarios that are highly plausible in the near term.
The U.S. Executive Branch has hardly grown in fifty years – there were 1.8 million civilian employees in 1960, and 2.1 million in 2017. Yet over the same period the amount of money spent by the federal government has grown fivefold. To be sure, contracts and grants have filled part of the gap, but, still, both the amount and range of work required of the federal workforce has continued to go up, just as the scope and complexity of executive branch functions have also increased. Government contractors, widely used to plug the holes in our government, can only take up so much of the slack.
While the productivity of the United States and other nations around the world has increased since the 1960s, most of those productivity gains were related to manufacturing. In contrast, most of the roles of the U.S. Federal Government workforce associated with responding to emergent events, disruptions, and crises do not involve manufacturing — rather these roles involve complex sets of activities and discussions with multiple stakeholders. These actions typically span across several departments with the need to coordinate with local and state partners in ways that cannot be easily automated or streamlined in the same way that business pipelines can.
While some may think of digital technologies as solely increasing productivity, private sector firms and large organizations have not observed productivity gains similar to what has occurred in manufacturing resulting in what some have called the “productivity paradox”. Digital technologies provide for improved individual capabilities, however they also add to the expectations of public service – including the expectation of 24/7 availability, an increasing volume of emails read and data sets to analyze, increased interruptions during the day through different modes of communication, and multiple demands for attention throughout the course of week or emergency response event. Technologies have created new risks, including cyber-security and misinformation challenges. Future combinations of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) may displace jobs that had to be done by humans, though for emergency response and other complex actions, research so far shows that the technology lacks maturity.
As researchers our intent is not to make a case for a larger U.S. Federal Government. What we are concerned with are the capabilities of our nation’s public service to respond effectively to crises. This may be achieved by addressing concerns unrelated to size, including remedying decreasing morale, addressing the challenges created by increasing politicization on what should be non-partisan activities, and updating legacy processes to be more effective in the digital era. Additional solutions include improving the effectiveness of hiring mechanisms, addressing key vacancies that go unfilled, and remedying the risk of the next generation not finding public service to be an attractive career option.
Several examples underscore just how bad the problem is for the U.S. Federal Government workforce:
A comprehensive analysis of those dynamics, noting trends through time, coupled with workshops and interviews, reveals a set of highly disconcerting trends:
Six critical themes run through our study:
The study’s findings point toward the more extreme plausible explanations for current trends and their future implications. Perhaps U.S. Federal Government civil servants are the canaries in the mines of the Nation, telling us that the air is growing dangerously foul. Perhaps not just the capacity of the U.S. Federal Government to respond to domestic and foreign crises is at risk, but also our civic norms and constitutional order.
Over the last several decades there has been no shortage of recommendations about how to reconstitute effective federal government. Given an increasingly strained workforce, this study raises the following points as recommendations:
Indeed, the ultimate question from this study is one for the American people: what do they want from their government?
Is the current U.S. Federal Government – one that has challenges attracting and retaining talent, demeans non-partisan civil servants, prevents its workforce from making decisions, discourages a culture of learning and adapting, and risks failing when stressed by foreseeable contingencies – good enough for us, good enough to sustain and grow our economy, and good enough for our hopes and aspirations as a people?