GOP plan is the wrong way to reform government

January 31, 2011|By David S. Abraham

The recently released Republican plan to reduce the size of the deficit would save hundreds of billions of dollars and drastically reduce the debt. However, this approach undermines every government service and is the wrong strategy to reduce the size of government effectively.

Much of the Republican plan relies on broad cuts to federal employees, an initial across-the-board slash to agency budgets and salary freezes. The specific program cuts, a useful political tool to demonstrate focus, provide insignificant savings. The programs eliminated — such as U.S. Trade and Development Agency, which promotes U.S. companies abroad, and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities — have no coherent similarities except the Republican Party feels they are wasteful.

This is not how to reform an organization. As the consultancy McKinsey & Company notes, the most important tactics in organizational transformation are "setting clear and high aspirations and targets, exercising strong leadership from the top, creating an unambiguous structure for the transformation, and maintaining energy and involvement throughout the organization." Likewise, the Republicans will have to go beyond their vision of "saying no" to successfully remake government.

What is most worrisome about the plan is that it lacks a decisive vision and would leave us with an ill-equipped government workforce. The Republican approach tackles a fabricated concern: the overpaid federal worker. In fact, the government gets a good deal. For example, many of the lawyers working at the Department of Justice could be working at well-heeled law firms making well into six-figure salaries, but they enjoy the stimulation and challenge the government provides at far less pay.

If there is a problem with the government payroll, it is that ineffective staffers hang on to government positions and obsolete jobs do not get eliminated. Unfortunately, the Republican plan exacerbates this trend. Freezing salaries and restricting new hires to one replacement for every two people who resign would keep the least effective government workers while losing and failing to retain or acquire the country's best and brightest. It would leave the government workforce unprepared to meet new challenges.

In addition, as inflation begins to undermine the salaries and morale of workers, many qualified employees will seek higher-paying jobs outside government. Left will be those longtime workers who are unlikely to have the skills to meet the changing demands of government work, including the use of new information technology necessitated by a smaller workforce.

The government has tried hiring freezes before. They have led to our current government workforce, many of whom are retiring and taking with them their institutional knowledge. We should not set the stage now to replicate this trend in 20 years.

The Republican plan would also decrease government accountability and public safety. Since the plan cuts 15 percent of the workforce but less than 15 percent of programs, the government will necessarily rely on outsourcing. With fewer employees to oversee federal contracts and regulations, we could expect more Medicare fraud, BP-like oil spills and salmonella poisonings — events that are far more costly to federal coffers than proper oversight.

Although it seems counterintuitive for saving money, the government should have the flexibility to sometimes increase government salaries. This would attract more qualified candidates, potentially making other staff redundant. Instead of across-the-board staff reductions, performance reviews of federal employees should be strengthened and should form the basis for determining which jobs need eliminating.

If Republicans are serious about reforming government, not just saving money, they should make the same kind of strategic plan that thousands of nonprofit organization executives like me make each year — determine the type and level of services that should be provided, and then decide on a level of income (read: taxes) needed to sustain the service. Strong political leadership produces a budget strategy that details services the government should provide, not just which ones it should not. This would entail reforming Medicare and other entitlement programs, which make up more than 60 percent of the budget.

After four years of working at the Office of Management and Budget listening to Republican political appointees boasting about the benefits their programs provided to society and watching budget deficits soar, I am glad to see party leadership talking about getting our fiscal house in order. I just wish their plan did not undermine all government services in the process.

David S. Abraham is a Hitachi International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and oversees the nonprofit ClearWater Initiative. He worked in Office of Management and Budget from 2003 to 2007. His e-mail is

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