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The new president coming into office on January 20, 2009, will face what the current head of the Office of Personnel Management has called a retirement tsunami. According to many experts, 60 percent of the federal government’s rank and file workforce and 90 percent of its top managers will be eligible to retire in the next decade. OPM projections show that nearly 61,000 full-time permanent federal employees will retire in 2008 and that retirements will peak between 2008 and 2010—just as the incoming president is seeking to launch his or her new administration. Over the next five years, the federal government will lose more than 550,000 employees. But the market for recruits has never been more competitive and government agencies are locked in a fierce contest with the private sector.
For government procurement, a wave of retirements could be especially critical. Contracting officers oversee about $400 billion a year in spending and there are concerns that not enough mid-career professionals will be left to replace retirees because of budget and staff cuts in the 1990s that thinned those ranks. In fact, while the federal acquisition workforce has increased only three percent since 1999, federal contracting dollars more than doubled.
Because of efforts to downsize the federal workforce without reducing its functions, the government has also come to rely more and more on the private sector. The problem is especially telling in areas such as intelligence (for staffing surges after the September 11, 2001 attacks), defense (to maintain operations because personnel have been pulled away on military duty) and information technology (as the demand for complex technology has soared).
The result? The ranks of contract workers have grown to 7.5 million, four times the size of the federal civilian workforce itself. The government risks outsourcing all of its expertise.
Some would say that day is already upon us. Staff shortages in the acquisition, and program and project management fields have already been pointed to by the General Accountability Office and various inspectors general as the cause of cost overruns, schedule delays, project failures, and other shortcomings at nearly every department.
Any one of these would be a major challenge for an incoming administration. But their convergence multiplies the difficulty.
Never before has government management mattered more. Never have we more needed new and big ideas—and strong managers and leaders to implement them. And never before have we been so bereft of both.