How many contractors does it take to make the government work?

What’s the right size of the federal workforce?

Stumped? You’re not the only one.

Lawmakers recently debated the question during a hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s federal workforce subcommittee. Not surprisingly, the group reached no final answer.

What did come out of the hearing, however, was the notion that any discussions about trimming the federal workforce must take contract employees into account. In other words, Republicans and Democrats seemed to agree that the government’s workforce isn’t limited to civil servants.

But it won’t be easy for Congress to count and possibly cut the number of contract employees — for a variety of reasons.

Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica, said many agencies don’t maintain inventories of contract personnel. “Across the government, you don’t have a good sense of what you’re dealing with” in terms of the quantity of contractors, he said.

Likewise, Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, said the number of contractors supporting an agency changes frequently and any calculation is ultimately just a snapshot in time.

So the difficulty of counting contract employees, unlike full-time federal employees, is one challenge. Another obstacle is that many experts believe the notion of cutting contractors is as misguided as Republicans’ growing determination to reduce the number of feds, which now stands at 2.1 million.

“We don’t endorse headcounts of feds, and we’re not going to endorse it for contractor employees,” said John Threlkeld, assistant legislative director at the American Federation of Government Employees. “We don’t think it’s a good idea to make arbitrary reductions in the number of employees in either workforce.”

Threlkeld said bills introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) would shrink the size of the workforce through attrition. They represent the arbitrary approach that labor unions oppose.

Issa’s legislation (H.R. 2114) would cut 10 percent of the government workforce by the start of fiscal 2015 by allowing one federal employee to be hired to replace every three who retire or leave their jobs for other reasons.

Threlkeld said that approach to workforce reduction would force agencies to hire more contractors at a higher cost, which is what happened in the mid-1990s after the implementation of a federal downsizing initiative.

Issa, probably foreseeing such criticism, included a provision in his bill that seeks to limit an increase in contracts. However, the bill also includes an exemption “for cases in which a cost comparison demonstrates that such contracts would be to the financial advantage of the government.” How that provision will be interpreted is anyone’s guess.

Finding the right balance

Meanwhile, other experts have stepped back from the legislative proposals and political rhetoric to make the broader point that lawmakers are taking the wrong approach.

“You can’t effectively discuss changing the size of the government workforce, whether government employees or contractors, without looking at the underlying mission” of the government, Hodgkins said. “You can’t look at this in isolation and just say we’re going to reduce numbers.”

He added that arguments over the size of the workforce don’t make sense unless lawmakers and the executive branch come to some agreement about what the government should and — more importantly — should not be doing.

“If you just want to reduce the numbers, you’re also faced with reducing the full set of capabilities an office or agency is bringing to bear,” he said.

Instead of putting a cap on the number of feds or contractors across the board, Soloway said agencies should be evaluated on an individual basis to determine the appropriate balance of employees. He added that contractor reductions are bound to happen as agencies’ budgets are cut.

All of that suggests that the question about the right size of government is not the one Congress should be asking. Sources say that if lawmakers are interested in more than simply scoring political points, the conversation about the workforce must be more strategic and focused on eliminating redundancies and taking advantage of IT to improve efficiency.

About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.

Reader Comments

Thu, Jul 4, 2013 SUB-CONTRACTOR

I agree with Blue Collar Man comments with one exception sub-contractors are treated as third class citizens. At one Federal facility it has a gym, doctor office, day care and federal credit union. Also, if a federal employee was hired prior to 1981 then he/she can retire at 55 with 30 years of employment. The same federal employee is also entitled to 60% of their pay for their pension and they don’t have to federal taxes during their last five years of employment which equates to 34% pay increase. They are forced to “work” from home one day a week but contractors and sub-contractors need permission to work from home. Federal employees are extremely entitled and don’t have the stress of losing their job. They seldom add any value and the contractor and sub-contractors perform all the work but the federal employee gets the adulations. One millisecond of a federal employee’s time is more than several decades of a contractor’s time. The last question is how many Federal employees are needed to make the government work given that there are more layers of middle management. Like Blue Collar Man said “I have just scratched the surface here.”

Thu, Mar 14, 2013 Blue Collar Man

The grass is always greener on the other side. Being a contractor I have seen so many misconceptions about the contracting world. The only benefit to being a contractor is a little bit more in pay. Over the years, the pay difference between the Government employee, and the contractor has dropped considerably; I have seen my pay drop from 25-30% over the last 4 years. In addition, our benefits have been shrinking more, and more. Thus, we are paying more out of pocket expenses than before (for example: medical costs are rising, paid time off is decreasing, etc...). In addition, contractors are treated like second class citizens, and many see us as owned labor. We have to take our PTO to receive any training that is beneficial to our work requirements, and our production requirements are number based. Then, there is the old stand by, it is easier to fire a contractor than it is to fire a Government employee. Lastly, most contractors are trying to land a Government position. Many of the contractors are prior military, and these contracting positions are the types of jobs that are available to us. However, many contract positions are reduced or omitted after a year. Thus, we can never build up any type of benefits (retirement, time off, etc...). Most of us want to have a long, and successful career serving our country. So, please the next time that you think about looking down on a contractor, remember that we are people, too. Now remember, I have just just scratched the surface here. Just food for thought.

Tue, Feb 26, 2013 Rich

I was a contractor for the Federal government for 10 years. My work came out to 10 days per month over that period. I made more per day than some Federal Employees, however my take home pay per month was less, I received no benefits. I paid self employment tax. I replaced over 2 Federal employees. My country was happy, I was happy...

Fri, Feb 3, 2012

The nonprofit nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight has reported that the average federal contract worker receives 1.83 times as much total compensation as a federal civil servant doing the exact same job. A quick way to cut the budget without firing anyone would be to pass a law stating that no private contractor working for the federal government may be paid more than a federal civil servant doing the exact same job. The government could cut the cost of labor nearly in half overnight without forcing anyone out of their jobs. The whole point of contracting out federal jobs was to save money. Since they started doing that, the budget has balooned to pay all those contractors nearly double what the federal civil servants were being paid. It isn't rocket science.

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