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Executive Brief

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:

  • Almost 20 percent of the government’s top managers, members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), departed in the first twelve months of the current administration, and numbers have not fully recovered. In December of 2016 there were 8,281 Senior Executives. 1,506 of those SES members left government during 2017. New additions made up ground, but in December of 2017 a deficit of 377 SES members remained compared to one year prior.
  • There are five-fold more Federal workers over 60 than under 30 years old — less than 6 percent of the federal workforce is under 30 years old.
  • The last major revision to the civil service rules for recruiting, hiring and retention of the Federal workforce was 40 years ago, a time that predates the Internet. Looking at these staffing dynamics across agencies, the prospects are even bleaker.

A comprehensive analysis of those dynamics, noting trends through time, coupled with workshops and interviews, reveals a set of highly disconcerting trends:

  • Increasing work overload, with clear impact on both “readiness” and retaining talent.
  • More toxic workplaces were reported especially, but by no means only for women.
  • Complaint channels or social media are now weaponized to “take out” an employee or group, resulting in a chilling workplace climate and constant anxiety about the potential of false allegations for executives striving to do their best with constrained resources in demanding circumstances.
  • Distrust of permanent civil servants by new political appointees, always present but usually fleeting, has become endemic. Having served under the other political party too often is a reason to marginalize non-partisan Senior Executives.
  • Lack of rewards for action and innovation, yet clear risk of penalties, leading to “analysis paralysis” lest a decision later be judged wrong or politics misconstrue well-intended actions.

Six critical themes run through our study:

  • All three branches of the U.S. Federal Government have failed to keep up with a rapidly changing world, opening enormous vulnerabilities and attack surfaces.
  • Many private sector positions are vastly better remunerated and often more stable relative to public service, particularly at the senior most ranks of the civil service.
  • The increasing polarization of Congress is visible in any number of objective measures, resulting in dysfunctional deliberations and an inability to perform legislative functions.
  • An increasingly polarized polity, resulting in part from campaign financing changes, have made money more important in our politics.
  • An increasing replacement of what was non-partisan Senior Executive roles with political appointees for at least the last half century.
  • The ever-present stress of major cyber threats, combined with new hybrid threats including misinformation, disinformation and other concerns, with the potential to disable substantial parts of government and discredit public processes: witness the recent ransomware attack on the City of Atlanta in 2018.

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:

  • Layers of legacy processes, methods of interacting, and outdated technologies make embracing organizational agility — let alone building resilience to unanticipated events — difficult to achieve for the U.S. Federal Government.
  • Continuous adaptation requires public service to rethink how it organizes its human processes and technologies, asking hard questions about who does what work and how.
  • Such adaption includes creating “safe spaces” for those focused on the non-partisan work of public service. Those require the private sector’s explicit recognition that without these spaces, the United States will become increasingly politically polarized, unstable, and unable to operate in either crisis or normal modes.
  • More specifically, the rapidly changing world requires new ways of organizing who does what work in public service and how to include more bottom-up, “entrepreneurial-on-the-inside” activities that reward employees that help public service adapt to changing demands of citizens and needs of the nation.
  • If the U.S. private sector were willing to take a leadership role to help improve both local communities and the United States as a whole, in addition to pursuing profits, this too could improve the resilience of the country to future crises – after all, united we stand, divided we fall.
  • Lastly: for “We the People” frank conversations with the public, private sector, media, and other social institutions of the United States need to continue, based on understanding the plurality the United States embodies and recognizing the investments needed in new forms of networked governance and collaboration if United States is to remain a pluralistic society not captured by only a few, privileged interests.

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?


Spring 2019 edition of the American Society of Public Administartion magazine, PA Times.