Are Declines in U.S. Federal Workforce Capabilities Putting Our Government at Risk of Failing?

Source: Molly Jahn, Gregory F. Treverton, David A. Bray, Buddhika Jayamaha, Bill Valdez, Ben Carnes, Liam Hutchison, Will Mulhern, Senior Executives Association, January 2019

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 sixty 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. ….

….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. ….