A federal hiring freeze is a missed opportunity

Former White House Assistant Director for Innovation Policy Dan Correa speaks at the 2016 Hitachi Social Innovation Summit. (FedScoop)

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This week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to freeze hiring across broad swaths of the federal government. While Trump had long promised to take this action, I, for one, had hoped this was a promise we could take seriously but not literally. My hope was that Trump’s rhetoric was simply intended to signal a serious commitment to addressing the future of the federal workforce.

Instead, the hiring freeze is real, despite overwhelming evidence that it is a blunt and ineffective way to reduce the federal workforce. As a temporary measure, we can only hope it will quickly yield to a real plan to engage in organizational renewal across government.

The damage wrought by past hiring freezes is well-documented. In 1982, the Government Accountability Office examined hiring freezes under former presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, finding they had little effect on federal employment levels but imposed significant disruptions. That’s because under the straightjacket of a hiring freeze, agencies are unable to fill critical talent gaps that prevent them from operating effectively.

But these important points only capture part of the story. The major challenge facing the federal workforce isn’t its size. In fact, the size of the executive branch civilian workforce has declined since 2009, and stands at 400,000 less than its peak in 1990.

But a hiring freeze will exacerbate the major challenges that the federal workforce does face, including that:

More than 60 percent of the federal workforce is over the age of 45: Public sector workers are significantly older than their private sector counterparts. And nearly two-thirds of the government’s senior executives are already eligible to retire. As federal employees retire en masse over the coming years, agencies will need to fill critical roles. That means recruiting more new talent, not less, and finding and grooming the next generation of career civil servant leaders.

Federal agencies already face persistent talent shortages: Long-standing critical shortages, for example, in cybersecurity, human resources, and STEM occupations threaten to undercut the federal government’s ability to prevent cyberattacks, approve new drugs, keep our food supply safe, and more. What’s more, federal agencies too often lack expertise in innovation and performance improvement methodologies like Lean Six Sigma, Lean Startup, and Human-Centered Design that can significantly improve agency performance while saving money. These skill sets are common in the private sector for good reason.

The average tenure of full-time permanent employees is nearly 14 years: By comparison, this figure is far lower economywide, at just over four years. While there are significant benefits to institutional memory, especially aside a constantly rotating cast of political appointees, the risks include the lack of a steady stream of fresh personnel with new skills and ideas that can be a key source of organizational renewal. In addition, as the federal employment model (and hiring process) becomes increasingly out of step with shorter-term “tour of duty” private sector opportunities, federal employment also becomes less compelling to highly talented individuals.

Freezing the hiring process would not address any of these challenges. In fact, by locking in place the current federal workforce, it would only make them worse.

Instead, a more responsive and efficient federal government requires a commitment to organizational renewal. To see why, consider the simple fact that many of this country’s leading private sector firms are not nearly as old as most federal agencies. Firms like Google have grown up in an era in which management and performance improvement are science, and design is a discipline. Federal agencies — many of which were founded in the 1800s — first established organizational structures and norms in an altogether different era, and work under the strictures of a bureaucratic system that can stifle organizational renewal. Designed to thwart corruption and ensure accountability to Congress and the American public, this system also makes change difficult, and a commitment to organizational renewal even more important.

Fortunately, there are commonsense, bipartisan steps this administration can take to improve performance through organizational renewal — some of which do not even require the help of Congress. The following are two places to start.

First, embrace “tour of duty” hiring: Recruit a cadre of highly talented individuals to serve their country in temporary roles tackling important problems and improving agency performance. By establishing the Presidential Innovation Fellows and the U.S. Digital Service, the Obama administration showed how effective this approach can be for onboarding and deploying digital expertise to transform federal digital services. And the recent passage of the TALENT Act to codify the Presidential Innovation Fellows demonstrates strong bipartisan support for this approach.

Given this support, extending the “tour of duty” hiring model to other high-impact areas — from performance improvement to innovation management — is a commonsense next step. Doing so will require both active recruiting — hunting for the right candidate rather than dangling a fishing line with a desperate hope of attracting them — and using flexible and fast hiring authorities like Schedule A (r) that represent a pathway distinct from both career roles and political appointments.

Second, commit to a federal learning agenda: The most effective organizations are deeply committed to both knowledge management and professional development. And given how long many federal employees have been in government, the imperative to introduce new, proven methodologies is particularly acute. Fortunately, recent advances in the digital delivery of educational content — think “coding bootcamps” — means that professional development can be done more effectively and efficiently than ever before. A federalwide commitment to replicating what works and deploying proven performance approaches would reap significant cost savings.

For delivering government that works better and costs less, these approaches are just a start. But failing to embrace them represents an important missed opportunity to accomplish what the Trump Administration says it wants by freezing hiring.

Dan Correa is former Assistant Director for Innovation Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama. Tweet him @correadan. 

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Commentary, Dan Correa, Donald trump, Hiring Freeze, White House