A (Not So) Quick Note on Federal Hiring Freezes

Dear reader, we are now in the midst of a federal hiring freeze, and we should hope it’s not permanent or even semi-permanent. And I am afraid it must be said that, if you supported this action, you are in some small way responsible (in the sense that a Citizen is responsible for much of a republic’s actions) for a great deal of wasted money. And now doubtless someone is saying, “Wait, what, how can that be possible? Because it seems like, if we stop hiring federal employees, we’ve stopped growing the size of government, right? And if employees retire during the hiring freeze and we don’t hire people to replace them (aka, reduction in force through attrition), we’re shrinking government, right? And this has to be good for our national debt and concerns about government overreach, right?”

Not really, no. Here’s the thing… the things is, the number of people employed by the government really doesn’t matter compared to the laws and mandates that the government issues and the budget the government works with. Those are the things that determine the “size” and impact of the federal government — not the number of civil servants. The federal workforce just exists to perform duties obligated by law and spend the money allocated to those duties by Congress. Dear reader, if you don’t like the way the laws are intruding on your life you should rightly blame your Congressman. If you are appalled by the rate of growth of the national debt and federal budget deficit you should rightly (and loudly) BLAME YOUR CONGRESSMAN. But don’t blame the feds for such shenanigans. And for the love of God, let them hire people again — perhaps even in the quantity appropriate to the work.

Because the catch is: mandates, laws, and the federal budget don’t just go away because the President doesn’t want to hire new people. Oh no, no, no. Like it or not, the government is required by law to do things every day that help the country function and, in some cases, keep the country functional. Grants still have to be made, licenses still have to get issued, inspections still have to be performed, papers still have to get stamped (or eyeballs scanned or what have you) to prove authenticity, infrastructure still has to be financed, research still has to be conducted— all of the things the law says the government has to do, the feds still have to do. They just have to do them with fewer people.

So what’s a federal agency in a bind like this supposed to do? One can only ask people to work overtime for just so long before one burns out one’s workforce, and then the best and brightest of them leave for greener pastures. So agencies don’t do that; instead they hire private-industry contractors to make up the hours. Dear reader, you might be shocked to know how much work done by the “federal government” is actually performed by private contractors for the sole reason that the agencies can’t hire more people. It is interesting to note that Congress and the President set agencies’ personnel size at hard limits, but contractors are technically counted as roughly equivalent to furniture in the balance books, and are therefore allowed to skate by.

It is also worth noting that contractors, on average, cost the government 50% to 100% more than a comparable federal employee. You read correctly in that last sentence, o kind and hopefully worried reader, and you don’t even have to believe me — you can look it up with the Congressional Budget Office although, to be fair, even they aren’t sure they’re counting all the contracts. So every time someone freezes federal hiring for more than, say, a month or two, the percentage of the budget that ends up going to personnel costs (even if it isn’t tabulated that way) actually goes UP. And that means the number of things the government can do with the remaining money goes DOWN, as does federal accountability (again, the CBO isn’t even sure how many contracts they’re paying for, and they’re the ones who are supposed to be counting the money). But there are things that still have to get done. So what, one asks, does a federal project manager do when their boss tells them to do the work with less money?

They delay, of course. In the parlance of the industry, they push the project to the right. Instead of doing 100% of a project this year, they do 50%, and push the other 50% to next year when (one hopes) there will be enough money to finish it. This in turn decreases the efficiency of the project and reduces its return on investment (meaning the project manager is wasting taxpayer money by taking too damn long). It also makes the government slower to respond, which seems to rather upset taxpayers — often more so than the fact that through the choices enacted by their chosen politicians, more and more of their money is going into the pocket of private industry, and less and less is going to the purpose for which is was supposedly allocated. But it’s the only thing an agency can do when the hiring freeze hits but the volume of work remains the same.

And so, dear reader, it comes to this: if you thought, for one moment, that freezing the size of the federal government (without reducing its concomitant roles and responsibilities) was going to save you money, or if you voted for a politician who would like you to believe this, it is my unfortunate task — possibly undertaken for my sins, which were likely many and manifold in a past life — to inform you that you have made a grave error. A hiring freeze does nothing more and nothing less than increase government inefficiency. I am so terribly sorry.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.