On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
The federal government employs over 2 million people, tens of thousands of which live and work in the D.C. region. This makes the federal government the biggest employer in the area — and what drives the economy.
It’s no secret that conservatives are in favor of a smaller, limited government, but has the government shrunk too much at certain departments and agencies that has made it difficult for federal workers to effectively do their jobs? Or has the Trump administration just been trimming the fat and “draining the swamp” like he promised to do? And how will the outcome of next week’s election affect federal workers?
These questions and more answered in our fourth program in our series on the 2020 election.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we look at how to best cope with election stress, but first, the federal government employs over two million people, tens of thousands of whom live and work in this Washington region. That makes the federal government the biggest employer in the area. President Trump came to Washington with a preference for private enterprise over government. So what effect has the Trump administration had on federal workers in the local economy? And how will the outcome of next week's election affect the departments and agencies here?
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome to the four and final installment in our series on the 2020 election. We'd be happy to hear from you. Give us a call. Are you a federal employee? How has your agency changed over the past four years? 800-433-8850, send us a tweet @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there.
KOJO NNAMDIJoining us now is Dane Waters. Dane Waters is a Political Strategist, who has worked on six Republican presidential campaigns. He's a Direct Democracy Advocate and the Founder of The Elephant Project. Dane joins us from his adopted home of Kiev, Ukraine, but he spent a fair amount of time here in the Washington region. Dane Waters, thank you for joining us.
M. DANE WATERSThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is Max Stier, the Founding President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. Max, thank you for joining us.
MAX STIERIt's great to be with you.
NNAMDIMax, you were the Founding President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, which quoting here, "strives for a more effective government for the American people." Just how effective is our government right now?
STIERWell, obviously a loaded question. We are faced with an extraordinary set of problems with the pandemic and economic issues that come out of it and concerns around racial equity. The list is very, very long and important. I would say our government is an extraordinary institution that is in need of real investment to make it better. It's not performing in the ways that we need it to address these problems, and we need to, you know, make sure that we're helping the people who are serving us do better.
NNAMDIWhat have you seen, Max, over the past four years at government agencies and among federal workers?
STIERWell, I think we continue to see a phenomenal mission commitment. You mentioned at the top there are two million civil servants. It's worth noting that that number is pretty much the same number as has existed since the 1960s. So the federal government headcount has got no bigger. The responsibilities of the government have gotten larger. I think one of the things that stands out, you know, well above everything else is how hard people in the government actually work to serve the public.
STIERWhen you think about the pandemic and the disruptions that it has resulted in, federal government has kept pace despite having to move everything virtually, to meet a very large set of demands. I think where our government bluntly has failed is on the leadership side. We have a phenomenal workforce that really isn't being well led or operating in institutions that have been modernized in ways that allow them to perform their jobs better.
NNAMDIDane Waters, how effective in your view is our government right now?
WATERSWell, I have to concur with a lot of what Max said. I think that our government is not operating correctly or in an efficient manner, and I think a lot of it goes to a lack of leadership. But I want to point out that I think -- first of all, it's a flawed system, because when you think about it, all these federal employees know that every four years they're going to have another manager. They're going to have another boss. They're going to have someone new come in that's going to theoretically change the direction of what's going to happen.
WATERSAnd I think it's a very difficult situation to put federal employees in. And even though I believe the federal government is bloated, I believe that there definitely can be cuts. I think that I believe in a smaller less intrusive government. But my hats off to the federal employees who have to actually deal with the constant change in the mission of the federal government and the focus of the federal government every four years.
NNAMDIDane Waters, is the government not effective, because it's not properly staffed? Would it be more effective dealing with today's crisis if our government was staffed at levels like we saw during past administrations like the Obama-Biden administration?
WATERSWell, it's honestly just not that simple in my opinion. It's like any organization. It's about the quality or the effectiveness of the employees that you have. Now I'll be the first to say that I'm not a strong proponent of the civil service. I mean, I worked in the federal government. It was a situation where we had a very nice lady, who refused to use a computer, refused to learn how to use a computer, would only use a typewriter. I mean, that may be an extraordinary circumstance, but it's about being able to get the quality people in who can effectively and efficiently do their job.
WATERSSo I don't think it's about the sheer numbers, but it also goes back to a lack of leadership. I mean, you know, if you have people, who are qualified leading these organizations primarily political appointees in most cases, I believe that the people will rise to the occasion and fulfill their obligations. But I will also say I do strongly believe that many of the agencies are not properly staffed at this moment in time.
NNAMDIWhat would small government look like to you, Dane? What are the essential functions of government in your view?
WATERSWell, I believe that -- I mean, I believe that all politics are local. I believe that when it comes to issues like education and healthcare and energy and infrastructure and commerce and labor, I believe a lot of those things can be handled at the state level, because, listen, you know as well as I do that employees in New York need different things and people in New York need different things than my home state of Alabama than they need in California. And I think state legislatures have the ability to make those decisions far more effectively than the federal government.
WATERSI believe that issues that the states need collectively like there's military and national intelligence, border security, you know, these are the issues -- these are the functions that the federal government should play and the states cannot individually play. And so I think that that's the distinction that needs to be made.
NNAMDIMax Stier, in your view, how has President Trump and his administration handled and how has it treated the federal government and as we mentioned earlier its over two million workers?
STIERSo just to start I'd like to say that I agree 100 percent with Dane that this is a leadership deficit that we're seeing that some of it is structural. So you ask about President Trump, the very fact that we operate a system in which there are 4,000 political appointees is just nonsense. No other democracy that I'm aware of in the world does it this way. And it means, just as Dane suggested, that the career workforce is in a very challenging position where their leadership is changing over very, very quickly.
STIERThey're short-term. They don't typically sometimes have the competence, but also the long-term view about what needs to happen that we really need to see at the top ranks of government. And we need to professionalize the leadership of our government more than we have today. Make it accountable, but make it more professional. With respect to the Trump administration itself, they've had real problems understanding the very, you know, nature of our government. From the outset, President Trump has been the slowest in getting his leadership team in place.
STIERHe hasn't started with an understanding about the rules themselves in terms of clearing ethics and going through the Senate confirmation process that is vital to bringing people in place, and more recently he's challenged, you know, some of the very fundamentals that are important to seeing a government work well. And, you know, issued an executive order recently that would undermine the professionalism of the federal workforce in a very big way.
STIERI just want to end by saying that we had a president assassinated in the 1880s, President Garfield, by a, you know, would-be job seeker who was, you know, part and parcel of the system then, which was the jobs and the federal government were political spoils, and from that awful incident we saw a big turning point in our government. And our government became more professionalized. The civil service was created, and the recognition was that to solve the problems of public we needed people in place who were professional and there for reasons of merit not because they were affiliated with the political party of whoever was in charge.
STIERAnd the Trump administration right now appears to be pulling in exactly the wrong direction in attacking the basic premise of the need for professionalized government. I think the pandemic demonstrates for all of us how vital our government is to our health and welfare. And having, you know, expertise at the top making, you know, decisions based on evidence is what's going to help us address these critical problems. So I would say right now the Trump administration is steering in the exact wrong direction.
NNAMDIMax, there are some misperceptions out there about the size of the federal government. When federal government jobs are cut and they have been cut during both Republican and Democratic administrations, did government actually get smaller?
STIERIt's a wonderful question, Kojo. There's a mistake that many people make in terms of envisioning the size of government as the equivalent of the number of federal employees there are. So you have seen different administrations. President Clinton was probably the most significant cutter of government jobs in modern times, you know, were there were 400,000 jobs that were cut. But the government itself did not get smaller. And what you typically see is cuts in federal employees and then increases in expenditures where contractors fill the gaps.
STIERAnd frankly are often times more expensive than actually having a direct federal workforce. And so it is not a good idea to think of size of government as being the same as the number of federal employees. Just coming back to Dane's point to in terms of thinking about what do we want our federal government to do, as it stands today over 70 percent of that workforce of that two million is focused on national security issues.
STIERAnd I think most Americans of both parties would agree that we do need to be kept safe and that is an appropriate responsibility of the federal government. So we already have a government that is largely orientated to those national security issues and we do need to make sure that we're not, you know, cutting off our nose to spite our face. Reducing federal headcount believing we are reducing government size when in fact if we don't, you know, address the technology innovation issues that we have in government, the leadership issues, we're simply going to be counting beans rather than making our government more efficient and effective.
NNAMDIDane Waters, you're a lifelong Republican, who does not support President Trump, but if he loses, the government may very likely expand during a Biden administration. As a small government conservative, are you okay with that? Is that a tradeoff you're comfortable making?
WATERSI am comfortable making that. I believe that Donald Trump is not qualified to be President of the United States. So, you know, it's about picking and choosing your battles, Kojo. And I welcome any change that President Biden -- well, hopefully he's President Biden brings in lieu of President Trump. So I will accept that in the interim until we can get a good quality conservative president who can make the adjustments to a government that needs to be made.
NNAMDIMax Stier, we got an email from Mark who says, "What are the number of federal contractors these days?"
STIERIt's a wonderful question for which there's no great answer. Paul Light, who is a Professor at NYU has done the best work on this topic. And honestly I think he himself would say his methodology is inexact. But what is clear is that you're talking about many, many, many multiples of people working in the contractor space over and above what you would see of direct federal employees. In terms of dollars, you know, you're looking at north of $500 billion a year being spent on, you know, contractors.
STIERSo it's a very, very large and also hidden part of our government.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation and take your calls at 800-433-8850. To the career government workers, how has working during this administration been different from past administrations? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast we'll be looking at how to best cope with election stress. Right now we're talking about President Trump's vow to drain the swamp, meaning making the government in Washington smaller and how that's been going so far. We're talking with Max Stier. He's the Founding President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. And Dane Waters is a Political Strategist who has worked on six Republican presidential campaigns. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Julie in Springfield, Virginia. Julie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JULIEHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. My husband is 24 years retired from the military. He was in 24 years. He is a government contractor and I work for the Department of Defense, and we have a lot of experience with the government and I am here to tell you that for every four to five great employees there are at least two employees that do the bare minimum to get by. I can tell you first hand that yes, the people that work hard are overworked, because the people who don't make it hard for the people who do.
JULIEEven as a government contractor, my husband gets so frustrated, because a couple of the government employees are working so hard, a couple of the government employees are doing nothing and then the government contractors are getting very little work put in front of them, because the hardworking government employees have too much to do and they can't spread the work out. So I hear what that gentleman is saying. There are some really hardworking government employees.
JULIEBut the government system makes it almost impossible to fire or to get rid of somebody who does not do a good job. So we have a real problem, and it's not because of the president and it's not because of leadership. It's because with this government system there are not good checks and balances. You can't get rid of people who don't do their job well. And it's just a horrible situation.
JULIEWe've been having a tax issue with the IRS in March and every time we call we get a different answer, a different response. People aren't putting the records in correctly. There's a problem in our government, and the people that don't do their job well there's no way to get them out and get good people in place.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you call. Dane Waters, I know you happen to feel that government should not be in the business of employment.
WATERSWell, no. I mean, the federal government is not an employment agency. I mean, the federal government exists like any other company exists to provide a service. And I agree with the caller about the civil service. I mean, listen, you have bad actors and bad employees in any company. And I do believe that it would good if the federal government could be changed in such a way that problem employees -- and I hate to use that word, you know, problem employees could be replaced, but I also want to be very, very clear there are amazing federal employees out there, people who go above and beyond. But you do have just like in any company you do have those people who don't pull their own wait. And it should be easier to make changes to those employees if necessary.
NNAMDISame question to you, Max Stier.
STIERSo there were almost 10,000 people that were fired last year by the federal government. I entirely agree with the proposition that Dane said, which is you have some extraordinary people. I hope people watch our Service to American medals first ever virtually gala that they can see on our website, and you also have people who are not performing effectively. The one place I would just ask Julie to reconsider her views is I do see this as a leadership issue.
STIERThat fundamentally it is the leaders in our government that need to take ownership of holding employees accountable and yet they themselves are operating in a system where they are not held accountable. The performance management system that we have in our government could absolutely be improved. And yet it typically does not apply and is not used for the political leadership, the top people.
STIERSo show me the organization that is well managed in which the top leadership -- and I'm not talking just the very top, but many, many layers is fundamentally not managed whereas everyone underneath them is supposed to be managed by those people, who don't care about it because they're not around long enough to be concerned about the failure of dealing with that employee.
STIERSo this is in fact a leadership issue. You can change the rules to make it easier to get rid of federal employees. It will not change the culture or the outcome unless the leadership takes responsibility.
NNAMDIHere now is Lynn on Capitol Hill. Lynn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LYNNThanks so much for taking my call. And big complements to Max Stier and the Partnership for Public Service. You all are doing wonders for the federal government as well as other organizations. I'm a former legislative and executive branch employee. And while in the executive branch I was in both the civil service and a political appointee during the Obama administration. I think we need to be working harder to make government a more attractive employer both for younger people and retaining people at mid-career and even senior.
LYNNRight now a lot of attacks on federal employees are discouraging folks, have been for years, but particularly these last three years. That has to change. And we have to find ways to make government work smarter and modernized. Every single administration comes up with the same ideas with respect to "We've got to make it smaller, tighter, more efficient." Some administrations have worked to make government work smarter. That's what we have to get back to. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you call, Lynn. Max Stier, there are a lot of federal jobs especially political appointees, you mentioned earlier, that have not been filled during this administration. How big a problem is that when it comes to leadership?
STIERIt's a huge problem. The metaphor for me is we've all experienced the substitute teacher when we've been in school and it's not a pretty situation when you have a substitute teacher. They're not treated very well. They don't perceive their job as to take responsibility for difficult problems or to think long-term and they don't get much respect. And people who are in acting roles, which is what happens when you don't fill a position with a presidentially appointed Senate confirmed individual are in the same situation. No matter how capable they are individually they're operating with one or both arms tied behind their back.
STIERThis administration was the slowest off the mark in getting leaders in. This administration has seen the most turnover. And to this day we track about 700 of the top Senate confirmed positions over 130 there's still no one whose been nominated for them. And, you have, you know, about the same number that is waiting for confirmation, lots of responsibility with the Senate.
STIERI mean, think about this right now we have at the Department of Homeland Security the top two positions -- more than the top two positions where you have individuals that are in an acting role in which the government accountability office says that they're even in those roles unlawfully. You can't rule these organizations effectively in those circumstances.
NNAMDIHow dangerous is that -- important to national security departments like State and DHS, Department of Homeland Security if they're not properly staffed, because you mentioned Department of Homeland Security, but it's my understanding that the Department of State is not fully staffed also? How dangerous is that? How important is it, Max Stier?
STIERI think we're seeing how important it is every day as we live through an extraordinary pandemic and, you know, very challenging economic times for many. So, you know, again, go back to basic purpose here and Dane said this. You know, our government is really our only tool for collective action that has the imprimatur of the public and taxpayer resources behind it, lots of legitimate debate that can be had over what are the contours of the responsibilities, but I think we see right now how fundamental addressing big problems like a pandemic are.
STIERYou need a national government that can provide a national plan and a national response with real resourcing. And it requires leadership across the board collaborating. It's not just HHS or just DHS and HHS, it's the whole organization working well with state and local government, working well with the private sector and working well with Congress. You need really capable leaders that have some level of tenure or, you know, long-term perspective to be in place. And you need those people to have, you know, been selected right on boarded effectively and working well as a team. And if you don't have it, you have real problems. And that's what we see right now.
NNAMDIDane Waters, isn't foreign policy a primary role of the federal government. Is it concerning if departments like State and the Department of Homeland Security are not properly staffed?
WATERSThat's of great concern to me. I mean, foreign policy is one of the reasons that I vote for a specific president. And I think that it goes back to one of the issues about political appointees. The fact that, you know, Donald Trump -- listen, there are so many qualified, I mean, conservative Republicans using that phrase loosely, who could work in the White House, national security agencies, DHS, State Department and in foreign policy. But because President Trump has made it very clear that he will not allow any of those people, who opposed him who were never Trumpers to be in the administration, it's made it very difficult to get very high quality -- like Elliot Abrams. I think he's a great guy. Would have been great in government, but because of certain pushback against Trump was not allowed to be in the State Department.
WATERSSo that is the problem in the lack of leadership. And I want to make it very clear, I agree with Max and I agree with Lynn that listen, this is about leadership. It's about inspiring. I mean, it's about, listen, people aren't going to do their work unless they're inspired and Donald Trump and his administration has not inspired people to do their job.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation, and then we'll look at how to best cope with election stress. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a conversation about President Trump's vow to drain the swamp that is reduce the federal government in Washington. Dane Waters, as we mentioned, you're a lifelong Republican, who has worked on six presidential campaigns and was a political appointee of President George H. W. Bush. But you do not support President Trump and will not be voting for him. Why? Why are you doing what many on both sides seem to rarely do and that is putting your personal beliefs and feelings ahead of your allegiance to your political party?
WATERSWell, I think one of the fundamental problems in our country with our political system is that loyalty to a party over country. And I am choosing to support Biden for president just for many reasons. But primarily it goes back to leadership. There is no leadership in the White House and it goes to the federal government. Listen, I can't fault federal employees for not doing their job when there's no leadership. There's no plan. There's no vision. There's no consistency. There's no staffing. I mean, they have nothing.
WATERSAnd so one of the many reasons that I will not be supporting Donald Trump is because I believe he has a tone and tenure about him that is just hard to follow and that is detrimental to the United States and also our foreign policy.
NNAMDIMax Stier, if Biden does win and over his first term he brings staffing of the federal government to where it was when he and President Obama left it in January of 2017, would that be a good thing?
STIERSo, again, it's not about a number of federal employees. I think the real issue we need is the leadership one. You know, the key challenge for a possible President Biden will be to bring in people, and bring them in quickly, who will have the capability understanding and collective ability to get the government working in a different way. You know, there are serious morale issues. Lynn raised the question about the need to refresh the workforce, which is real. Only six percent of the folks in government today are under the age of 30. That is bad for today and certainly even worse for tomorrow.
STIERThere's a lot that has to be done. And I think there's a lot that has to be done different. I think one bright light out there is that the government really has responded very well across the board in terms of dealing with its responsibilities during the pandemic. And it has innovated in very important ways. Look at the VA where you've seen a huge increase in telemedicine. You look at improved hiring processes in a lot of agencies. You looked at increased productivity by people who are working in a virtual setting as opposed to having to commute for three hours to a physical building.
STIERWe need to harvest those innovations. And if President Biden starts there to build on top of the good things that we can learn from these challenging times that will take us a big way. But we do need to, you know, to refresh our government in some very large ways. We've laid out a whole roadmap for renewing our federal government, which is available on our website. We have to be thinking about these things differently not about headcount, but really about outcomes and serving the public better. And if we do that we'll have a better country.
NNAMDIHere is John in Lorton, Virginia. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYeah, hi. I've been in the federal government for about 20 years. I'm retired now, but I watched all the presidents come and go. And they like -- the presidents love to play games with the civil service. You know, Trump has gutted a lot of agencies by not allowing them to hire new people. Reagan crowed about how he cut the staff at the White House. Well, he did cut the staff at the White House. But then he put twice as many people in the White House simply by moving them from the agencies. As far as professionalism, we need an academy like the French have.
JOHNXerox used to have a beautiful campus out nearly Leesburg that they trained their people. We could have the same kind of thing. Oh, and the final thing is the political parties when they got beat or it was their time to move on they burrowed their political hacks into the civil service before they left office. And they continue to be burrowed in ruining the progression of promotions. But also hindering the new president in getting what he wanted done.
NNAMDIWell, we're almost out of time, but thank you very much for sharing those sentiments with us. Before we go, Max Stier, last week President Trump quietly signed the executive order on creating something called Schedule F in the accepted service. What does that mean?
STIERReal short answer, it would convert tens of thousands if not more current career civil servants into what would in effect be a larger pool of political appointees. It's a terrible, terrible policy and also done without any consultation with Congress or critical stakeholders. It would take us back again to the 19th century when we really need to move to the 21st century.
NNAMDIMax Stier is the Founding President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. Max, thank you for joining us.
STIERThank you so much.
NNAMDIDane Waters is a Political Strategist, who has worked on six Republican presidential campaigns. He's a Direct Democracy Advocate and the Founder of The Elephant Project. He joined from his adopted home in Kiev, Ukraine. He's spent a fair amount of time in this region, though. But, Dane, thank you very much for joining us. Now maybe you can get some sleep.
WATERSThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou are more than welcome.
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