As the longest shutdown in the history of the U.S. federal government enters its fourth week, 800,000 federal employees are paying an enormous personal price for the gridlock in Congress. Many have already lost a paycheck. Many more will lose a paycheck in the coming days.
These short-term impacts are real and troubling and may have severe long-term implications for the families involved as some are forced by economic realities to quit and find new jobs.
Even if the president signs a bill providing back pay to these workers, the compensation may be too little and too late for them to meet their financial obligations.
What our executive and many legislative leaders on both sides of the standoff are failing to see is the long-term potential for a weaker, less robust and less capable federal workforce.
While today’s public servants are victims in this political “knife fight” over the proposed border wall, talented and public-service motivated individuals may logically choose to bypass the federal government as an employer in the future.
The fact is, even before the shutdown, our federal workforce was already facing a staffing exodus due to a “wave of retiring professionals” as a full one-third of career employees become eligible for retirement at the end of the decade and current staffing levels fail to keep pace with the growing complexities of government work.
Since 1984, the federal government workforce has remained constant at around 2 million people. Much of the work and complexity over these decades has increasingly been outsourced to contractors, a population that is now three times larger than the federal workforce.
During this government shutdown, the work performed by government contractors is expected to continue. While many of these private contract firms are not being paid by government during the shutdown, they presume to be when it ends. While larger firms may be able to cover these costs in the short term, others will not.
We should not however think for one minute that contractors are making interest-free loans to federal agencies. There will be costs, and the federal government will pay higher prices over time because these firms will price in the risks of government shutdowns into their own business models.
They’ll have to price in how long they can continue to deliver services and products and pay and retain their own highly qualified employees, as opposed to accepting non-governmental contract opportunities.
Not immediately, but the costs of governing, in absolute and symbolic terms, become that much higher over time due to a lack of political leadership in which a shutdown becomes one more high-stakes, win-lose negotiation outcome with real consequences over time.
Private contractors serve an important role. Government working with organizations in the private and nonprofit sectors often leads to better decision-making and outcomes. There are many reasons to be proud of the work that private firms do.
However, we should not confuse the work of private contractors for the inherently governmental work and decision-making that federal employees are and should be responsible and accountable for.
Well-trained, public-service oriented professionals will have myriad options in today’s job marketplace. The work of government is increasingly intergovernmental (across federal, state and local agencies), and intersectoral (across public, private and NGOs).
Schools of public administration, policy and international affairs are educating and training today’s students with a range of soft and hard skills that are mobile and transferable across the sectors.
In fact, at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, our graduates prepare for and enjoy meaningful work in equal numbers across the federal, state and local government, NGOs and the private sector; and are moving seamlessly between these sectors throughout their careers.
But today, if you are a young person considering multiple avenues for employment, are you going to choose to work for a branch of government:
- that is constantly and often unfairly criticized;
- from which you could be temporarily laid off without pay;
- that may tell you that you have to carry out stressful and dangerous work without pay; or
- that makes you personally responsible for all of your own financial commitments while not receiving any pay for your efforts?
Or, are you going to take a well-paying job with one of the many private contractors performing work that public employees historically have done or outside of public service altogether?
Today’s shutdown and the manner in which federal employees all over the country are being treated and characterized will pay negative dividends on the future capacity of a much-needed federal workforce to engage with all sectors and levels of government in addressing a range of complex security, health, education, environment, economic and energy needs.
If government shutdowns continue to be a strategy arrow in the quiver of elected leaders, then we’ll see more of the best, brightest and most public service-minded graduates continue to pursue leadership opportunities outside of the federal government.
That would be a real loss. President TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE, House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat GOP senator knocks Biden for 'spreading things that are untrue' in voting rights speech MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats make voting rights push ahead of Senate consideration Hogan won't say if he will file to run for Senate by Feb. 22 deadline Voting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities MORE (R-Ky.), reopen the government and put our very capable public servants back to work addressing the vital issues that every citizen and organization cares about.
Doing so will help send a clear message to current and future students that working in the federal government on important and challenging issues can still be an honorable and rewarding career option.
David M. Van Slyke is dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, where he also is the Louis A. Bantle chair in business and government policy and professor of public administration and international affairs. He is author of, "Complex Contracting: Government Purchasing in the Wake of the U.S. Coast Guard's Deepwater Program," (Cambridge University Press, 2013).