today in security - civil servant canaries

Today in Security: Are Declines in U.S. Federal Workforce Capabilities Putting Our Government at Risk of Failing?

​The U.S. federal government is at a point where critical operations could fail in the face of probable stressful events, according to the Senior Executives Association (SEA).

The association includes career members of the Senior Executive Service, representing aspiring government leaders from government levels GS-12 to GS-15. The group's white paper, Are Declines in U.S. Federal Workforce Capabilities Putting Our Government at Risk of Failing?, featured an analysis of the government's abilities and areas of concerns, specifically in the face of "a perceptible loss of collective resilience to detect and respond to adverse events." The study focused on workforce trends and reactions given dozens of potential and plausible scenarios.

Factors contributing to the diminished resilience detected in the study included a lack of growth in the executive branch's workforce despite a budget that increased approximately five-fold over the past 50 years. However, all three branches of the federal government fell behind, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which even ​seven years ago was ranked among the lowest agencies for job satisfaction. 

"As researchers, our intent is not to make a case for a larger U.S. federal government," the analysts said. "What we are concerned with are the capabilities of our nation's public service to respond effectively to crises."

The authors noted that the concerns could be addressed by various methods, including remedying decreasing morale, undertaking the challenges created by increased partisan activities, and modernizing processes to be more effective in the digital age. 

"Additional solutions include improving the effectiveness of hiring mechanisms, addressing key vacancies that go unfilled, and remedying the risk of the next generation not finding public service to be an attractive career option," the authors explained. Often, the private sector can be seen by potential employees as both more lucrative and more stable compared to public service.

The study found that almost 20 percent of the government's top managers left the Trump administration within its first year. While some new hires were brought on, several positions remain unfilled.

Analysts also determined that less than 6 percent of the workforce is under 30 years old, while the last major revision of rules for recruiting, hiring, and maintaining a federal workforce occurred about 40 years ago, predating the Internet.

Employee retention also decreased over time, with the study finding "a set of highly disconcerting trends." These trends included more work overload, increased reports of toxic work environments, weaponization​​ of complaint channels or social media against an employee or group, an endemic mistrust of permanent civil servants by new political appointees, and a sense of "analysis paralysis" stemming from a lack of rewards for innovation or action paired with a penalty risk for erroneous or misconstrued but well-intended actions.

"Perhaps … civil servants are the canaries in the mines of the nation, telling us that the air is growing dangerously foul," the study said.