For as long as most of us can remember the words “government employee” have been synonymous with steady, reliable employment where terms like “downsizing” and” rightsizing” seldom applied and the threat of being laid off was as remote as snowfall in Miami Beach. Then the housing bubble burst, banks failed, retail sales plummeted, and unemployment soared. The Great Recession, which descended like a dark cloud in America and much of the globe, had many benchmarks by which to measure its dreadful impact. In government, it will be remembered as the economic storm that was so severe it forced the layoff of police officers and fire fighters in American cities. The long-standing cloak of invincibility for public sector employees was stripped.
Layoffs are just plain bad in any environment, because when all the analysis and rhetoric about their causes are spent, people are displaced and families suffer. It may be argued that layoffs are a fact of life in any business where economic conditions or demands for services or products fluctuate significantly. But there are a number of reasons that personnel layoffs in government are more difficult to impose and can create real and imagined crises in confidence relative to governance.
There is no more sacred trust in those we rely on to govern than to provide sound fiscal management of public funds. This includes not only prudent spending in accordance with projected revenues, but also funding for contingencies and reserves or “rainy day” set asides. Likewise, core service demands in government, absent natural disaster or other emergencies, fluctuate very little. So, when government organizations resort to laying off personnel, public trust is shaken and replaced with the belief that essential services are being cut. These doubts and fears are nearly always magnified by angry public sector employees who allege financial mismanagement and predict dire public health, safety, educational and quality-of-life consequences will accompany any layoffs. There is no shortage of bitter recriminations from all directions and the fallout from even the threat of job losses leaves organizations and their communities with long-term wounds.
From a practical standpoint, these are reasons enough to avoid the need to lay off government employees and explain, in part, why legislatures large and small struggle to avoid unplanned workforce reductions. Other reasons include powerful employee union resistance and the exercise of political influence which too often undermines the ability to make tough public policy decisions. Furthermore, civil service systems make the process exceedingly slow, cumbersome and costly—often reversing workforce diversity progress, and rewarding longevity of service at the expense of quality of service.
This newfound vulnerability of market forces should persuade public sector employers to begin enacting many of the “re-engineering government” concepts written about and discussed in recent decades but too often shelved in deference to preserving the status quo. It is time to begin adopting many private sector best practices instead of just giving them lip service.
Sure, this will require more accurate and realistic government budget revenue projections coupled with constrained spending. Healthier reserves, too. But it should also include debunking the myth that governments are obligated to “employ for life”. Government agencies’ principal responsibility is to provide efficient and effective services. Its role as an employer is a natural and desirable by-product but that role cannot be fulfilled at the risk of an institution’s financial collapse. Public sector union integrity should be protected but its political hold on those who fund their positions and approve their wage and benefit packages must be tempered. Civil service reforms are needed to permit greater flexibility for governing boards and chief executives to promptly respond and adapt to changes in service demands and budget conditions—and to do so in a manner which does not prove counterintuitive to workforce goals.
Diverse staffing strategies should be embraced which include contracting and public-private partnerships. These alternative service models facilitate flexible workforces and often limit or shift employee-related costs and liability. Fears of loss of control relative to worker productivity or conduct are unwarranted when contracts and agreements are sound.
Finally, governments must learn to track and predict workload measures (particularly in those areas like development services, short-term or seasonal programs) and opt to accommodate such changes by using qualified temp services to augment staff. It is much less arduous and painful to conclude a temp service or terminate a service agreement than to lay off members of a government agency. By seeking out and using local-based services and personnel, alternative service delivery models can be implemented without sacrificing local hiring, affirmative action and other worthy government organization employment goals.
Paradoxically, this new government employment reality can strengthen government in a myriad of ways. Job security, flexibility and mobility can be restored and even enhanced through public-private synergies. Employee performance, satisfaction and self-esteem will improve as distinguished service is more directly related to job retention. And perhaps most importantly, public regard and support for government employees will likely be elevated as the work environment becomes viewed as less artificial and more accountable to market forces which guide businesses in the “real world”.