The Senate voted last week to order reductions in DoD’s civilian workforce, reasoning that since the uniformed services are shrinking, the military’s civilian workforce should too. But two of the Pentagon’s top managers said Congress needs to think very carefully about using “blunt instruments” to cleave personnel from the military services.
“Nothing really gets me more fired up than this thought that government civilians are overpaid and underworked. It is total crap,” said Robert Work, the undersecretary of the Navy. “I’ve seen what the civilian workforce does. I guarantee you, with the number of hours they spend trying to get our budgets set, trying to hit auditability targets, trying to fix our ships and aircraft, there is no better workforce in the world. Period.”
Work spoke Thursday at a forum held by Government Executive magazine alongside Jamie Morin, the acting undersecretary of the Air Force, who’d also like to dispel the perception that DoD civilians are overpaid Beltway bureaucrats.
“When they think of our civilians, folks in the Washington environment think of people who work in the Pentagon and, like me, push paper around,” he said. “For the Air Force, the majority of our civilians are not in Washington, and many, many, many of them are making operational and readiness contributions. It’s turning wrenches on flight lines. It’s working in a depot doing long-term maintenance on aircraft. It’s running simulators for flight training. We have civilians deeply integrated into our operations.”
The undersecretaries’ comments came in response to a question about the Senate version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which finally cleared the chamber last week and will go to negotiations with the House soon. If the other chamber agrees to the Senate language and the President signs the bill, DoD would be legally bound to reduce its civilian workforce by 5 percent over the next five years.
“We’re scheduled to reduce the size of the U.S. Army by some 100,000 men and women. We’re reducing the size of the Marine Corps by some 80,000. There’s no provision for any reduction in the civilian workforce, which has grown by some 16 percent since 2007,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) explained earlier this year when the language first cleared the Armed Services Committee.
Workforce growth came from Congress
But Work said much of the civilian workforce’s expansion has a fairly straightforward explanation: It was mandated by Congress itself.
“Our civilian workforce has grown specifically due to directed growth: ‘Grow your cyber force. Grow your acquisition workforce. Change your military to civilians in your medical professions. Get better contracting efficiencies,'” he said.
Work said the Department of the Navy continues to believe its civilian workforce is about the right size.
“And over 50 percent of our civilian workforce is paid by working capital funds. That means they adjust to the workload. They’re fixing ships, they’re re-doing aircraft, they’re building tanks,” he said. “If somebody tells me the workload’s going down, I’ll say, ‘OK, I might be able to take a civilian cut.’ But I don’t see that happening.”
Morin said, in the Air Force, choices were made very deliberately over the last several years about transitioning certain work away from uniformed military members and into the civilian workforce.
For one reason, he said, civilians provide continuity in highly-technical jobs that military members cannot simply because they so frequently rotate to new jobs, new geographic locations or out of government entirely. And for many positions, they also tend to be much more cost effective, he said.
“We need to have the right part of the workforce doing the right job to meet the operational needs and to do it at best value. I don’t think formulaic management is the right answer,” Morin said. “I think we have to continue to look at that whole human capital force and apply the right people to the right problem at the right time. And continuing to develop our people is critical, because we’re relying more and more on them.”
And that reliance, Morin said, is coming at a time when a huge chunk of the government’s civilian base of knowledge and expertise is getting ready to depart civil service.
“You know, we have a tremendous civilian science and technology workforce in the Air Force, but the average age is over 50. Those folks are looking toward retirement now, and we need to build a new generation,” he said. “We’ve got to manage through that, and that means you can’t subscribe to blanket moves that are going to impair your ability to prepare for the future. The folks that are nearing retirement might shift their plans by a year or two, but at some point they’re going to leave. If we’ve lost that time to have overlap and transfer of knowledge and highly-technical skills from the previous generations to the next, we will regret that for a long time to come.”
Work said federal civilians and agency managers also need some relief from an ongoing political debate between the merits of civilian employees versus contractors. The result, he said, has been a see-saw over which approach the government should favor.
“Since 2001, the Department of the Navy went through a great, great wave of outsourcing. Let’s get rid of government civilians because we’ll save 60 cents on the dollar. OK. Five years later, hey, we need to insource, because we’ll save 60 cents for every contractor we get rid of. That’s kind of new math to me,” he said.
Work said civil servants in DoD are tired.
“I believe they feel like they’re under siege,” he said. “They’ve had two years of pay freezes, the bonus situation is changing constantly, they hear in the press that their jobs need to be cut. I think it’s time in this administration that we really focus in on the civilian workforce as part of the total force and make sure we have that right.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.