This was originally published as an exclusive to Government Executive.
Since the November election, our national discourse has been dominated by the march to the edge of the "fiscal cliff" - the urgent need to reach a budget deal that will prevent taxes from going up on the middle class and automatic and deep cuts from taking effect across the government. It's an important debate with great consequence for our country.
One of the pawns in these negotiations has been the federal workforce. During the past two years, federal pay has been frozen, pension contributions for new employees have been increased, retirements are up, hiring has slowed and agency budgets have been slashed. Several proposals have been floated that would extend the pay freeze, cut federal benefits and limit backfilling of vacant positions.
All this is happening as federal workers have been increasingly asked to do more with less, and as the issues they are addressing - national security, healthcare, the economy - are all growing more complex. And now it appears the shortsighted way we have been dealing with federal employees is coming home to roost.
The recently released 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings showed the largest decline in federal employee job satisfaction and commitment in almost a decade. Employees also gave our government lower grades on each of the 10 workplace issues surveyed, including leadership, satisfaction with pay, strategic management, work/life balance and teamwork.
There are real differences of opinion about the role of government, but there should be consensus that we want government to be effective no matter what it is doing. Declining worker satisfaction and commitment scores are a sure sign of trouble.
The danger is not worker unhappiness, but the tradeoff of achieving savings through workforce cutbacks, pay and benefit reductions at the expense of a less capable and a less responsive government. Fundamentally, this is a performance issue.
While few will be spared in the current budgetary climate, the federal workforce is neither the cause of excessive federal spending nor the answer to balancing the budget. On an annual basis, federal pay and benefits constitute less than one half of 1 percent of total government expenditures.
History has taught us that undercutting the federal workforce can have consequences, including a reduction of the government's ability to adequately respond to emergencies, prevent financial industry excesses, assist our warfighters and veterans, provide consumer protections, help businesses and effectively deliver social services. At stake in many ways is the role of government in maintaining our economic competitiveness and world leadership.
Rather than weaken and discourage federal public service, we need to invest in the people of our government by ensuring they have the skills necessary to serve in a global and knowledge-based economy. This means creating the conditions that can attract highly educated Americans to government service, providing them with training and leadership development opportunities and holding them accountable for results. When a federal program is created, there must be a commitment to invest smartly in the federal civil servants who do the work.
At the same time, government must compete with leading private-sector companies for top talent. But from the employee perspective, the Best Places to Work analysis shows government continues to lag behind the private sector in employee satisfaction and commitment, and the gap is growing. And research in the private sector has demonstrated that high worker morale matters, and is directly tied to improved performance and significantly better outcomes.
In short, our leaders have been pursuing an ill-advised course when it comes to creating a vibrant federal workforce. In the end, this approach will make federal employment less desirable for a new generation, result in the loss of talented individuals with years of experience and expertise, and give the nation a government that is treading water rather than effectively meeting the needs of the American people.
Max Stier is the president and CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The Partnership and Deloitte produce the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.