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Government shrinking

Charles W. Holmes (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)/Washington -- With midnight Monday the filing deadline for America's taxpayers, a growing crisis threatens the government machinery that their money fuels.

Americans might dread paying taxes, but they expect services -- from Social Security payments and timely weather forecasts to safe flights managed by air traffic controllers.

Increasingly, however, government agencies are unable to handle the workload. They are burdened by a decade of government downsizing and a growing number of employees reaching or approaching retirement age.

Compounding the predicament is a resurgence of tax cut politics, led by President Bush and Republicans and conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill, who make paring the size of government a priority.

Already, as the number of government workers shrank in the last decades to levels not seen since 1960, Americans have noted a decline in services they have expected as their due.

Among the evidence:

The Social Security Administration does not have enough employees to answer telephones and handle caseloads. The agency received 76 million calls last year to its toll-free number, and one in three people got a busy signal or hung up after being placed on hold. In many field offices, beneficiaries must wait two to four hours for help.

The Defense Department cut nearly 400,000 civilian positions from 1989 to 1999, a 36 percent reduction. Now, it says it lacks adequate staff in the fields of scientific research and development, high technology and linguistics.

At the Energy Department, the number of vacancies or temporary managers responsible for overseeing the nation's nuclear stockpile rose from 17 percent in 1996 to almost 65 percent in 2000. According to the General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress, such a high rate of turnover raises safety concerns.

The Internal Revenue Service saw its work force fall 17 percent from 1993 to 2000, partly because of a management shake-up ordered by Congress in 1998. The New York Times reported last week that, as a result, the IRS has virtually stopped pursuing more than 1 million tax delinquents and last year effectively wrote off more than $2.5 billion in taxes owed.

NASA, which has experienced a one-third reduction in the space shuttle program's work force, has warned that the cuts could affect the agency's ability to safely support the planned number and frequency of shuttle flights.

About half the nation's 15,000 air traffic controllers could retire this decade. Those hired in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired 11,350 controllers who went on strike, are eligible to retire this year if they have reached the age of 50. And many hired since then also will have to leave, because federal law requires controllers to retire at 56.

Those examples illustrate what U.S. Comptroller General David Walker has called an "emerging crisis" in government -- and some experts caution that much greater staff reductions could lie ahead.

The GAO this year added its concern about flaws in the way the government handles its 2.7 million civilian workers to a list of "high risk" problems facing the nation.

Budget cuts, the talent drain and bad management practices have created what the GAO calls "human capital shortfalls."

The shortfalls "are eroding the ability of many agencies -- and threaten the ability of others -- to economically, efficiently and effectively perform their missions," it said.

The shrinkage probably will continue. Bush last week released a budget for fiscal 2002 that proposes a reduction of more than 77,000 civilian personnel in the executive branch, a 2.9 percent decline compared with fiscal 2000. The budget also calls for spending cuts in 10 major federal agencies.

But the bigger concern about government's ability to operate effectively is time, not money.

The work force is getting older and taking its talent and experience with it into retirement.

About 35 percent of the full-time federal work force will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, and 20 percent more could take early retirement.

The numbers look even worse among the government's most skilled and experienced managers. A recent report found that of 6,000 senior federal managers, 71 percent are eligible to retire or will be eligible by 2005.

Federal agencies have begun an aggressive campaign to recruit new employees and offer bonuses to select managers they want to retain. Last year, for the first time, the government began a program to help valued employees pay off their student loans as a way to entice and keep younger workers.

The government always has had difficulty competing for talent against better-paying private companies. But recent statistics indicate the gap has grown.

Studies show that fewer and fewer college graduates are choosing to enter government service. At the prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, about three of every four graduates in 1980 went to work for federal, state or local governments. Today, that figure is just one in three.

Graduates of the Kennedy School are routinely offered $100,000-plus salaries and signing bonuses from private consulting firms; executive jobs in government have starting salaries at half that rate or less.

"It takes a lot of commitment to government to say no to that kind of money," said Joseph Nye, president of the Kennedy School.

A government study found that directors at Veterans Affairs medical centers make 33 percent to 70 percent less than administrators at other public and private hospitals.

The IRS often finds it difficult to entice talented college graduates to government service and away from the lure of the Big Five accounting firms. In the hot economy of the 1990s, it was a common problem for many agencies.

But with stock markets falling and layoffs reported almost daily by the private sector, the security of government work suddenly looks more attractive. The IRS and other agencies are reporting an uptick in their recruiting successes.

"Nobody wants to see the economy go down," said Ron Sanders, chief of human resources for the IRS. "But we'll take what we can get."

(c) 2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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