08/08/2011 04:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2011

Biggest Debt Deal Losers: Public Servants and the American People

In the wake of last week's eleventh hour debt deal, government workers have been left wondering what will become of their jobs in this new age of austerity. While the agreement forged between Congress and the White House does not include specific cuts, many suspect that retirement and health benefits will be slashed in addition to pay and hiring freezes. In an already struggling economy, government employees are going to have to serve more people with fewer and fewer resources.

In a bad situation, we often advise people to "make lemons into lemonade." Tighter budgets mean cutting out the fat and thinking of creative ways to solve problems. We literally can't afford the red tape anymore, especially without a source of revenue in the debt agreement. Can public servants find a silver lining by using budget cuts to streamline the government operations?

"The time is right for major reforms of the way we work that will result in major savings," says Terry Hill, a human resources specialist at the Department of Homeland Security. "We need to look for opportunities to simplify, automate, delegate, and re-engineer work so that every individual can make a difference and exercise all their strengths for the common good."

While belt tightening might pave the way for government reform, other public sector workers were more skeptical about the effects of the debt agreement. Dennis McDonald, a consultant to the federal government remarked:

I tend to be a 'glass half full' person so I'm trying to be optimistic. Unfortunately, one of the realities is that there are many ideologically-focused citizens who are actively engaged in the destruction of government programs as an end in itself. Trying to do 'more with less' in that type of environment could be a hopeless sell.

Denise Petet, a media technician at the Kansas Department of Transportation, hoped that the new super committee would make cuts with an eye toward the public interest. However, she worried that leaders would be unable to consider the long-term ramifications of their decisions:

I'd like to think that the cutting of programs will bring a focus on more of the 'greater good for more' than 'making sure I get my cut before the pie is gone', but I just can't see it happening. I'm afraid the innovation and common sense will get swamped by 'Sure, cut the budget, just not mine.' The ever-shrinking budget will be an ever-shrinking life boat where people get more and more vicious to stay inside.

Many public servants feel trapped between a rock and a hard place, frustrated at their inability to do their jobs without proper funding. If the forecasts are right, slashing government spending could further cripple the already-limping economy. If we sink even deeper into recession, there will be an even greater need for government to provide people with a safety net.

"What am I supposed to do?" asked a state government employee who wished to remain anonymous. "There's no extension of unemployment in the deal, and House Republicans will fight their continued existence. Because Congress has ignored job creation, unemployment is still going to be sky high in December, and they're all going to be pounding down the door wanting that I'm not going to be able to give them."

Employee morale is also a major concern. Government, long championed as a great place to work thanks to decent pay and benefits, risks losing talented people if agency budgets are gutted. As Ed Albetski, an IT specialist at the Department of Commerce explains:

The draconian cuts the Fed will be under will not make for a great work environment. Sometimes, no matter how good your people, you just need warm bodies and you won't be able to hire. Those with the wherewithal will jump to a less stressful job within the agency or without.

This is not an easy time to be working in government. The challenges have never been greater, but in every crisis there are opportunities, if we are willing to seek them out. Sometimes, you have to take the cards you've been dealt. Says T. Jay Johnson, an assistant project engineer for the Navy, "This isn't the hope and change most of us want, but wake up and smell the coffee. Like winning WWII or putting a man on the moon for previous generations, this is our challenge."

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