Ted Kaufman - United States Senator for Delaware

Investing in a Strong Federal Workforce

September 15, 2010

Mr. President, I rise today to express my concerns about the continued disparagement of our federal workforce.  I also want to speak about the opportunity we have for long-term investment in making our government work better for all Americans.

Earlier this month, people across the country took time to mark Labor Day.  It is a moment to celebrate one of the chief American values that has helped us make this country so great – and that is hard work. 

Employees in every industry work tirelessly each day, not only to realize their own share of the American Dream but also because it’s part of our culture to strive for success in every task we undertake. 

I’ve seen this same quality everyday throughout my career, exemplified in all of the outstanding government employees with whom I’ve met and worked.  That is why I have been coming to this floor each week to honor Great Federal Employees.  All of those I have so honored work extremely hard and serve with dedication. 

In June, I spoke from this desk about how efforts to scapegoat government workers with threats to freeze their pay or cut hiring are counterproductive and how proponents of such measures use flawed analyses of compensation data to make their argument. 

I was dismayed to see, once again, an article in USA Today making the claim that federal employees earn more than double that of private sector employees. 

USA Today examined newly-released data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and – quite frankly – they did a poor job of it.  Unfortunately, their findings have been circulated in other papers and on television and are being used as fodder for political attacks directed against those who work in government jobs. 

The article’s lead statistic is based on 2009 BEA data that shows that the average amount spent by the federal government on salary and benefits for each worker is $123,049. For the average private sector employee in this country, the figure is $61,051. 

That statistic would be shocking — if it were not so deeply flawed. The newspaper also points to a trend – a growing pay gap between federal employees and those at private companies. That trend is also based on a flawed reading of statistical data.

In my remarks of June 17, I went through their earlier analysis of federal compensation data from 2008 and explained the flaws in their methodology and how they drew spurious conclusions.  This latest study simply repeats the mistakes they made last time.  Let me list several prominent analytical errors.

The data does not measure similar populations, something even USA Today concedes. The article says that with regard to the gap in pay between federal and private sector employees – quote: “The analysis did not consider differences in experience and education.” 

The analysis does not take into account the statistically significant fact that the private sector workforce is 52 times larger than the federal workforce. Fifty-two.

Today, there are 1.9 million civilian federal employees.  But there are 101.3 million private sector workers. Simply put, there are far more people proportionally in the private sector  earning lower wages than in the federal government, because the government has outsourced so many low-wage jobs. Our federal workforce has also become far better educated in the last twenty years, which also translates into greater earning power.

The most egregious mistake made by USA Today in its last analysis, which I spoke about in June, was trying to compare data from two different Bureau of Labor Statistics studies.  The numbers the paper used for private sector salaries came from the BLS’s National Compensation Survey, while the numbers it used for federal employee salaries were from another data set, the Occupational Employment Statistics program. Even the BLS has warned against comparing data from these sets against one another.  On its website, it says – and I quote: 

“Occupational wages in the different ownership groups (the private sector, and state, local, and federal governments) are influenced by many factors that the [Occupational Employment Statistics] measures cannot take into account.”  It goes on to list examples, such as “level of work performed,” “age and experience,” “and “cost of living” adjustments for large urban areas. 

For many of the occupations being compared, the total number of federal employees in a given category is miniscule compared to the total employed in the private sector.  For others, the job categories in the private and public sectors are simply not comparable. 

One great example is “broadcast technicians.”  According to the USA Today, “broadcast technicians” in the federal government earn an average of $132,410 a year, while those in the private sector earn only $88,241.  However, what the USA Today doesn’t tell its readers is that, according to the very same data set they used, there are only 110 broadcast technicians working in the entire federal government.  In the entire national workforce, according to the same data, there are 33,550 broadcast technicians.  This means that broadcast technicians in the federal government represent three-tenths of one percent of the total.  One can hardly compare them, especially since, according to the OPM, 99% of the broadcast technicians in the federal government work for the Broadcasting Board of Governors here in Washington.  I know very well from personal experience that BBG technicians require much more experience and education than the average private sector broadcast technician. 

The same is true for clergy.  Most of the 810 clergy in our federal workforce are employed by the Veterans Health Administration.  I think it is reasonable to take a guess at what clergy might be doing at the VA – working as chaplains and counseling our wounded warriors.  There are 42,040 clergy employed in this country, many of them with small congregations that cannot afford to pay much salary.  It’s impossible to draw conclusions by comparing eight hundred federal clergy to over 42,000 clergy based on compensation alone.

Let’s take a look at another one.  “Highway maintenance workers” are said to make an average of $11,344 more each year in the federal government than in the private sector.  However, if we look at the data, we find there are only fifty highway maintenance workers in the entire federal workforce.  When USA Today compares this to the total number in the private sector, how many highway maintenance workers are they looking at for an average?  The answer is 5,190.  That’s 104 times more. 

But this brings us to the other problem.  Some of these jobs, like “highway maintenance worker,” do not have truly comparable positions in the federal government.  When searching through the Office of Personnel Management’s Human Resources data, one cannot even find such a category.  The fifty who work in the federal government, who were listed in the BLS survey under this category, are likely performing very different, and quite possibly more highly specialized work, than most of the highway maintenance workers in the private sector. 

The federal government is not like any private industry.  Federal employees perform functions directly relating to public health, national security, and financial stability.  Jobs in the federal government routinely involve decision-making that affects millions of lives. 

Over the past twenty years, after calls in the 1980’s and early 1990’s to streamline government, many federal jobs not directly related to “inherently governmental functions” have been outsourced.  As a result, the demographics of the federal workforce have been transformed – perhaps even more dramatically than most realize.  That is the subtext behind the data chosen by USA Today.

By far, most of the jobs now performed for the government by private-sector contractors are entry-level and low-wage.  This includes maintenance workers, customer-service agents, security guards, and other jobs that typically receive smaller salaries. 

Correspondingly, a larger share of the jobs still held by federal employees is higher-wage, supervisory, and professional – such as physicists, doctors, and highly-specialized IT experts. 

At the same time, the size of the federal government is virtually unchanged since the 1960s, even though our nation has grown by 40% in the same period.  According to the OPM, in 1960 there were 1.8 million federal employees. Today, there are 1.9 million.  Looking at this chart, one can see that the federal workforce has shrunk drastically compared to the number of Americans its serves.  The total population of the United States was180 million in 1960, and it has risen to over 300 million today. 

These days, federal employees are working harder than ever.  In fact, and I’ve said this before, the USA Today is right about one thing.  There is a public-private pay gap, but it goes the other way. 

The Federal Salary Council reported last October that civilian federal employees are making, on average, over 26% less than private sector workers in comparable jobs.  This gap continues to widen. 

I’m thrilled that there are so many outstanding individuals who have chosen to work in public service knowing that they could probably make more money in the private sector.  But the pay gap has certainly continued to discourage many talented Americans from making that choice. 

Like all important decisions we make about government, our mission to recruit and maintain the best possible workforce must feature a strategic approach. 

I think Linda Bilmes, of Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Max Stier, the President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, put it best when they wrote:  “The fundamental mistake …is to think of the federal workforce as a cost rather than as a resource that delivers specific benefits to the nation.”  That was from an op-ed in the Boston Globe in February. 

The Great Federal Employees I’ve honored from this desk over the past sixteen months are just a few examples of government workers who are an asset and make great contributions. 

As Director of the Office of Public Housing Programs at HUD, Nicole Faison inherited a rental assistance program rated as “high-risk” by the GAO for thirteen years due to rampant waste, fraud, and abuse.  She quickly turned it around, eliminating over $2 billion – that’s billion with a “B” – in fraudulent payments.

Eileen Harrington and the Federal Trade Commission’s “Do Not Call Team” brought peace of mind to dinner tables around the country when they designed and implemented the national registry to stop telemarketing calls.  Tens of millions have benefited.

Dr. Gareth Parry, who retired last year after a long career at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, worked to create risk assessment models for our nation’s nuclear facilities.  His efforts significantly improved the safety of communities near nuclear plants and those who work there.

I could go on and on and on.  

But the example of Dr. Parry leads me to an important point we here in Congress must consider.  There is a lot of data on the demographics of our federal workforce.  While some choose to point to compensation, the statistic I think is most pressing and needs the most attention is that of retirement eligibility. 

Currently, there are two retirement systems for civilian federal employees.  Those who began work before 1984 fall under the old Civil Service Retirement System, or CSRS.  All employees hired after 1984 participate in the Federal Employees Retirement System, or FERS.  In 1997, the number of employees eligible to retire under CSRS was 12%.  In 2006 it had climbed to 37%.  That’s over a third of the workforce.  For those eligible to retire under FERS, the number climbed from 7% to 13%. 

As I said in June, the OPM today estimates that a fifth of the federal employees will leave the workforce by 2014.  That’s almost 400,000 people.  Many have already been postponing retirement for years because they know we need their talents and experience. 

Today our civil service finds itself at a crossroads. 

We could choose to listen to those who continue to disparage public employees and cut salaries or cap hiring.  We would, however, undoubtedly see more failures to regulate Wall Street or those who drill offshore, failures to secure our borders and keep our communities safe, failures to ensure that all citizens have fair access to resources they need to pursue the American Dream. 

But there is an alternative.  Actually, I would say, it is a necessity. 

We can choose – now at this critical moment – to renew our investment in a strong, vibrant, and successful federal workforce.  The return on such investment promises to be high – indeed, if we fail to devote ourselves now to building a top-notch civil service, the next generation of Americans will have to spend even more to fix the problems that will result. 

In his book, Excellence, former Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary John Gardner – who founded the public interest group Common Cause – wrote that:  “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

In the same way, if we don’t value our government workers and the jobs they perform, we’re going to end up with a federal workforce – and a government – that isn’t the best it could be.  I’ve never known Americans to settle for second-rate. 

What does a sound investment in our federal workforce look like?  First, we will need to redouble our efforts to recruit new hires – and I hope many will be young graduates.  We have so many young people right now who are eager to give back to this country and make a difference. 

According to the Partnership for Public Service, the federal government will need to fill 273,000 full-time, mission-critical jobs over the next three fiscal years.  By mission-critical, they mean jobs considered essential for agencies to fulfill their obligations to the American people:  doctors and nurses at the VA, counter-terror analysts, lawyers, high-tech specialists, contract administrators.

So how can we attract the best and brightest of the new generation into public service?  We need to pursue policies and enact legislation that will enable a work-life balance competitive with the private sector.  This includes programs like parental leave, loan repayment, and telework.  I’m glad that some departments are already making strides on work-life balance, and I commend Chairman Akaka of the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia for being a leader on these issues.

We should also be launching programs to help train managers and supervisors, since more and more federal employees are taking on these roles.  With so many lower-wage jobs outsourced to contractors, we need to ensure that those managing contracts remain federal employees and that they have the skills and experience to make sure contract work is being performed according to the public interest. 

Now some of my colleagues are probably starting to shake their heads and say, “wait a minute – Americans do not want bigger government.” 

Indeed, these recent charges that federal employees are somehow overpaid evoke the perpetual claim that the most desired government is always the smallest.  That cuts and outsourcing are ends in themselves.  However, it was precisely this ideology of reduction that left our key regulatory agencies unable to prevent disasters like the financial crisis and the Gulf oil spill. 

I think they have it wrong.  It’s not that Americans want smaller government.  They want better government.  They want government that works. 

Let me share some interesting findings from a survey conducted in May by the Center for American Progress and Hart Research Associates.  The study found that 62% of Americans have an unfavorable view of federal government, a 22% rise since 2000.   

However, it also found that Americans would rather improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government than reduce its size.  The same number – 62% – preferred better government to just smaller government.  Among those who identified as political moderates, the figure was even higher, at 69%. 

Furthermore, when asked about specific aspects of government involvement, a majority of Americans believe the federal government should be more involved in solving problems.

For example:  61% believe the government should do more to develop new clean energy sources;  60% want the government to do more to improve schools;  the same number want federal help to make college more affordable; and 57% would like the government to do more to reduce poverty. 

Investing now in building and developing the next generation of federal employees will go a long way in making sure that government works better for everyone.  It will help us tackle problems like these – developing clean energy, expanding educational opportunities, reducing poverty – and avoid the next financial crisis or oil spill.

It’s time to ask ourselves what kind of government we want for the next century.  We can’t afford to let this important debate about our federal workforce and its future be hijacked by those who prefer to scapegoat and distort the facts.  We’ve all seen what happens when we make important policy decisions based on incorrect information.

I am encouraged that the OPM has joined with the Office of Management and Budget and the Labor Department to study the actual pay gap, in order to determine how best to compare federal and private sector jobs.  Once we have that data, then we’ll be better able to figure out how to make federal jobs competitive with their private sector counterparts and attract top talent into government. 

Mr. President, by looking forward, by ceasing the ‘blame game,’ and by making a commitment now to building the best federal workforce possible, we can ensure that the next generation is well poised to tackle its greatest challenges. 

Lincoln called on his fellow Americans to cherish and safeguard our greatest strength: “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  We must also strive to maintain a civil service of the same kind for the long term.  Our children and grandchildren deserve the same type of Great Federal Employees we have today. 

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