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One item on Donald Trump's agenda for his first hundred days in office is to place a hiring freeze on federal employees. Now, a freeze is not unprecedented. Other administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have used them. But as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, even those who support the idea of paring down the federal workforce say a freeze is not the way to do it.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: The civilian federal workforce is about 2 million, largely unchanged from the 1960s. With federal contractors and grantees, however, that figure balloons to 7 to 9 million workers. Cato Institute tax policy director Chris Edwards thinks the federal workforce should be smaller, but a hiring freeze, he says, won't get you there.
CHRIS EDWARDS: If incoming president Donald Trump wants to reduce the size of the federal workforce, what he should really do is decide which programs he wants to cut or eliminate.
NOGUCHI: Trump rode to victory in part promising thinner, more effective federal ranks. Rhetorically, a hiring freeze and his promises to drain the swamp seemed to address both issues. But they won't, says Paul Light, public policy professor at New York University. Big government may be unpopular, he says, but people do like their programs, from national parks to food inspection to Medicare.
PAUL LIGHT: When you start really looking at what these jobs are, Americans kind of like what most federal employees do.
NOGUCHI: Light says payroll and benefits make up less than 10 percent of the federal budget. He says freezes alienate good workers and don't save money.
LIGHT: Some of your very best employees who can get a job in the private sector will take it.
NOGUCHI: A 1982 Government Accountability Office report still cited by many experts found past hiring freezes cost the government more while also resulting in less collection of taxes and other revenue.
LIGHT: You might end up bringing in service contract employees who are more expensive.
NOGUCHI: And Trump's hiring freeze does not specifically cover contractors. James Sherk, research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, says using contractors is still preferable to hiring workers directly. He says because of unions and appeals processes, it's far too difficult to fire underperforming federal workers.
JAMES SHERK: It's essentially a lifetime commitment, and if you're not satisfied with the work, there's not much you can do about it. With a contractor, if you're dissatisfied with the work, you just don't renew the contract.
NOGUCHI: Sherk says without a hiring freeze, agencies have less incentive to look for fat to cut.
SHERK: You're not looking for the efficiencies because you don't need to find them.
NOGUCHI: Donald Kettl, public policy professor at University of Maryland, says he believes the freeze reflects a desire among Americans for a better functioning government.
DONALD KETTL: The irony here is that if the goal was to make government work better to try to get it more under control, the hiring freeze is exactly the opposite of what you need to do.
NOGUCHI: Kettl says government agencies don't just need to blindly downsize. They need to do a better job of identifying the skills and talent they need, especially in a crisis.
KETTL: The bottom line here is, we have to figure out what it is we want to do and what it's going to take to be able to do it well and hire the people with the skills to make that happen. And we don't have a very good system in the federal government right now for doing that.
NOGUCHI: Kettl warns that simply using freezes to cut federal agencies could backfire. Americans demand robust and functional government services when they need it. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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