Federal Hiring Freeze – Here We Go Again

The author says that Donald Trump’s suggestion of another federal hiring freeze repeats past mistakes in handling the federal civilian workforce.

Recently, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listed his “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again.”

In his Contract with the American Voter, which is designed “to clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, DC”, his second measure proposes a federal hiring freeze and reads: “A hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health).”

How preventing the federal government from bringing in new workers affects corruption and special interest collusion is not explained.

As John J. DiIulio Jr. and Paul R. Verkuil point out in an April 2016 Washington Post op-ed, when John Kennedy was elected president in 1960, the executive branch employed approximately 1.8 million full-time workers, excluding uniformed military and postal workers. When Ronald Reagan was reelected in 1984, there were about 2.2 million federal employees.

In 1960, the civilian federal workforce constituted about 3.2 percent of nation’s employment. Currently, the non-postal civilian federal workforce comprises 1.5 percent of the workforce or approximately 2.1 million workers.

Regardless, federal hiring freezes are very popular with politicians who believe that they win votes with the public. We must make that assumption, because imposing hiring freezes in the federal government has become so common that they barely get noticed.

Back in 1982, GAO was asked to look at federal hiring freezes (FPCD-82-21), and here is their conclusion:

Government-wide hiring freezes, regardless of how well they are managed, are not an effective means of controlling federal employment. The government-wide hiring freezes had little effect on federal employment levels and it is not known whether they saved money. Because they ignored individual agencies’ missions, workload, and staffing requirement, these freezes disrupted agency operations and, in some cases, increased costs to the government. Since these hiring freezes disregarded agency workload requirements and did not cover all personnel resources used by the government, they created an incentive for managers to use alternative sources of labor. Any potential savings produced by these freezes would be partially or completely offset by increasing overtime, contracting with private firms, or using other than full-time permanent employees. Decreased debt and revenue collections also occurred as a result of hiring freezes. Government-wide hiring freezes bear no relationship to the workload that agencies are responsible for carrying out. However, GAO recognizes that there may be unique circumstances which may be beyond an individual agency’s control. GAO believes employment reduction should be targeted where it can best be absorbed. Improved workforce planning and use of the budget as a control on employment, rather than arbitrary across-the-board hiring freezes, is a more effective way to insure that the level of personnel resources is consistent with program requirements.

In his 2014 study, John Dilulo found that reducing the size of the federal government benefited state and local governments, which added workers to handle federal grant programs; as well as nonprofits and contractors that hired workers to fill roles formerly held by federal employees.

He argues that in order to make government smaller and better, more than one million more federal workers should be hired by 2035 along with the introduction of better performance management practices.

It is a safe bet that Donald Trump has not studied either of these reports.

About the Author

Michael Wald is a public affairs consultant and writer based in the Atlanta area. He specializes in topics related to government and labor issues. Prior to his retirement from the U.S. Department of Labor, he served as the agency’s Southeast Regional Director of Public Affairs and Southeast Regional Economist.