When I started with my current employer (a medium-sized Federal agency) back in the early 90s, we had a smaller professional staff than we do now, and many more “support” personnel whose jobs were no longer necessary now that everyone had a capable personal computer.* We had a higher project load than we do now, and that load increased substantially during the go-go years of the mid- to late-90s and early 2000s. Back then, every professional staffer in my part of the organization had at least one, and often two, major projects underway with one or two more in some sort of minimal-work stage, plus several longer-term projects.** Now, the volume of work has diminished substantially – partly because of the recession – while the number of professionals has increased – in part because of agency growth and in part because of substitution away from support personnel to professional staff. As a consequence, the workload per employee has diminished dramatically.
The workload would have diminished even further had it not been for a collective decision to undertake projects with ever-decreasing rates of return. Although government agencies have a very different purpose and approach than profit-maximizing entities, think of this as equivalent to an oil exploration company hiring new engineers at the same time oil prices are falling, and then justifying the added expense by drilling in increasingly unlikely spots. Sure, one or two of those exploratory wells in unusual formations may yield some oil, but most will be predictable busts.
Of course, in the corporate world, a firm that makes continual expensive mistakes will eventually come under pressure to change course. Earnings will fall, the stock price will fall, shareholders will complain, and the Board of Directors will eventually be forced to act or be replaced. Government has those pressures only indirectly: if voters get fed up with the psychic rate of return they’re getting from the bureaucracy, they can replace the men and women who control the overall agenda and purse (Congress) and the man or woman who appoints people to set the specific agenda (the President). The voters can’t directly replace a single person who works at this agency.***
The bureaucratic imperative, whether in the private or public sector, is to build one’s empire. Growth is essential to the process. The manager demands more staff, a bigger budget, more responsibility. I suspect this is part self-selection – those satisfied with the status quo tend not to go into management – and part self-preservation – if your colleagues are all playing this game, it’s professional suicide to stand on the sidelines.**** As an employee, I’m glad to know there is someone in my part of the organization fighting for budget dollars for my stuff, whether it’s new computer equipment, better office furniture, or more colleagues. I’m glad to know that my agency is skilled at wooing politicians and justifying its existence. But it's not necessarily a good thing from a more global perspective.
Having continuity across political eras is a good thing. From a staff perspective, it would be horrible to know that a Republican Congress meant a staff of 500 and a Democratic Congress meant a staff of 1000. Who would want such a job? The human cost of firing people is enormous. Fortunately, there seems to be a bipartisan more-or-less consensus about the value of the agency and its work.
But the system provides no mechanism for checking whether the size of the agency is a little too big or a little too small. (Or a lot too big or small, I suppose, but let’s focus on gradual change.) Yes, ultimately Congress gets to decide on a budget for the agency and can control the mission of the agency,^ but how much time can be spent worrying about the details of one agency? If Congress is out there printing and spending money as fast as the presses will operate, a request for another $20 million next year is likely to be met with a yawn and speedy approval. If Congress is practicing some form of austerity, the agency budget may not grow, and may even shrink, but again without much thought about the specific nature of what we do, how it fits into an overall government agenda, and what should be the appropriate amount of that work. Even an austere Congress is more likely to shrug and declare that all agencies will take an x% budget cut, rather than think through the right size of every individual agency.^^
I look around the office and see enormous amounts being spent – on more personnel, more office space, trips around the country for one reason or another – and look at the relatively low capacity utilization, especially relative to the mid-90s, and wonder why it is that we keep hiring people. This seems especially cruel if anyone thinks we’re likely to have a budget cut of any real magnitude: people just hired will be let go, having disrupted their lives to move here and possibly having turned down alternative offers.
Whose fault is this, anyway? I can’t blame my bosses, who are fighting for resources with other divisions. I can’t blame the other divisions for the same reason. I suppose I could blame the agency heads for not being responsible adults and asking Congress for less money – “Hey guys, good news for you this year: we’re seeing less business, so we don’t need quite as many people. We’ll be back asking for a budget increase when the time comes where we need the money.” – but it’s like blaming the lion in the zoo for eating the tourist who falls in. Lions do what they’ve evolved to do, and bureaucrats are no different. Ultimately, the buck stops with Congress. If they would scrutinize agency requests for more money with a critical eye, instead of spending their time naming Post Offices and dreaming up creative ways to spend more borrowed money, perhaps they’d be more effective at oversight. I have my doubts, though. The government is just too big, with too many agencies serving too many constituencies, for one organization to monitor effectively all its parts.
The problem isn’t limited to government, of course. Universities are notorious for increasing the number of faculty, departments, degrees, administrators, and what not, and grabbing as much land as possible. No one ever steps back and says, “Gee, was developing a cross-discipline program in the economics of chemical engineering Chinese literature during the Han dynasty really a worthwhile venture for us?” Instead, the ambition of universities tends to be limited only by the available budget. Churches tend to have an odd sort of mission creep as well, and corporations, despite the discipline imposed by the financial market, are not immune.^^^ Companies often think that being successful in one area gives them license to expand into other arenas, often beyond their competence, and almost surely without the degree of success of the first project.
Mind you, I'm not suggesting layoffs. I know the human cost of eliminating positions. And the government, bless its heart, has the luxury of not being subject to the harsh discipline of the market, so agencies have the ability to recalibrate their work force in a kinder way than the private sector. That's a good thing for the human capital involved, even if it's not as efficient as it could be. The labor market is flexible, a truly remarkable thing, but it is not frictionless. It takes time and considerable emotional energy to rebound from losing a job and to find another one. The solution isn't to halve the size of my agency overnight.
However, people retire and people move to other positions. If we should really be, say, 20% smaller than we are, a plan to get us from here to there would be a good thing. Losing 4% a year for five years could likely be achieved fairly painlessly. Yet I have the uneasy feeling that no one is looking that far ahead, and that one day someone will wake up and decide that the 20% reduction needs to be done in one fell swoop. That would be very painful.
Meanwhile, I'm trying to make myself useful while waiting for business to pick up...
*For example, we had remnants of the old typing pool (now called “secretaries,” but, let’s face it, the amount of secretarial work hadn’t increased when the typing pool suddenly became outmoded) and an entire statistical division that essentially did basic data collation and calculations – essential once upon a time but an anachronism once Lotus 1-2-3, VisiCalc, and Excel arrived.
**I know the word “project” covers a multitude of tasks. I realize I’m being somewhat cryptic for the sake of privacy, which is a little silly given the nature of this post. But that’s the way it is. Looks, this isn’t Wikileaks; I’ve got legal confidentiality requirements in addition to personal privacy issues. Think of a project as requiring an average of 10 hours per week for an average of six months, though the variance on that is enormous.
***Nor should they.
****Heh – I worked in a sports metaphor!
^Sometimes the crazy folks micro-manage the damn place, down to demanding specific reports on specific topics. Don’t they have anything better to do under that big ol’ dome anchoring the National Mall? What a world! But I digress.
^^An oft-heard proposal these days is to fund the government at 2008 levels. A supporter of Big Government would lament the need to make significant cuts while a supporter of Small(er) Government would note that 2008 levels were significantly higher in real dollars than even a few years earlier and can’t be much of a hardship. Neither side would spend much time arguing about whether 2008 funding is appropriate everywhere.
^^^And, lest you all think I protest too much, my agency is far from the worst offender of even my limited knowledge. We may be overstaffed, but we’re overstaffed, by and large, with smart people who are interested in doing their jobs well. I try to remind myself of that on days when some of my colleagues severely try my patience.