Analysis / Reform

Reforming the Civilian Workforce: Two Carrots and Two Sticks

Assessing Defense Reform Series

By U.S. Navy photo by Brian Nokell, via Wikimedia Commons

President-elect Donald Trump has proposed two goals for the federal government’s civilian workforce: making it smaller and increasing its quality. Both have also been long time Republican Party goals. Shrinking the size of the federal workforce can be accomplished initially by a hiring freeze, as Trump has pledged. To have a long term effect, however, the administration should concurrently conduct a broad analysis of all elements of government personnel to realign functions to the least cost component able to do the job. Improving the quality of the federal workforce, as Trump as also pledged, can be accomplished by tying compensation to skills, performance, and market factors, making elimination of poor performers easier, and expanding hiring authorities.


Carrots and Sticks


By offering carrots as well as sticks the Trump administration can produce a smaller, higher quality civilian workforce without going to war with its own personnel.

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To build support, the new administration can offer two carrots: first, explicitly acknowledging the many strengths of the workforce. Second, and more importantly, cutting the number of political appointees so that the permanent workforce has more responsibility and more access to senior decisionmakers. This would also cut the size of the bureaucracy and constitute the kind of bold stroke that Trump campaigned on.


Quality of the federal civilian workforce. The federal government civilian workforce is highly trained and good at what it does. In DOD, civilians pay the troops, rebuild weapons, and operate the bases smoothly and effectively. The great weakness of the federal workforce is that processes to protect it against political interference have the effect of disconnecting individual performance from individual reward. This protects poor workers. As former Comptroller Robert Hale recently noted: “[M]any of the senior civilians I supervised spent an inordinate amount of time handling problems associated with the small number of their employees who performed poorly.” Congress has pushed to increase responsiveness, for example, by making performance, not just seniority, a consideration when reducing the workforce.

Trump has prided himself on the quality of his corporate workforce. Regarding government, he notes that, “The government is filled with good people who are stymied in trying to get things done.” He proposes “creating an exciting atmosphere and putting good people in the right positions.”

Size of the DOD workforce. DOD has four categories of personnel: active duty military, reserve, civilians, contractors. The table below shows how numbers have changed from 2001 to 2016, essentially pre- and post-war.

Table 1: Size of the DOD Workforce




Active Duty Military 1,382 1,301
Guard/reserve 866 811
Government Civilians 683 792
Contractors (unavailable) 561

Numbers expressed in thousands
Source: Defense Manpower Requirements Report FY 2017, Defense Manpower Requirements Report FY 2001, Inventory of Contracted Services FY 2015

The civilian increase has received attention because civilians typically work in support activities. The causes for this increase are varied: in-sourcing, military-to-civilian conversions, growth in the acquisition oversight and cyber workforces.

One subset of civilians deserves closer attention: political appointees. The number of political appointees in DOD has stayed constant (236 in 1990 v. 238 in 2016) despite the 40 percent downsizing of the department’s military and career workforces. The number of senior officials needing Senate confirmation has risen greatly, from 12 in 1947 when the department was created, to 45 in 2000, to 58 today.

Trump has promised to reduce the civilian workforce through a hiring freeze and attrition. Hiring freezes reduce headcount but are blunt instruments, since the government cannot control either the billets or the quality of the personnel being lost. Further, in response to constraints on civilian personnel, DOD organizations hire more contractors and turn routine duties over to military personnel. The former can diminish accountability, while the latter diverts military personnel from training for war.

Recommended Changes

By offering carrots as well as sticks the Trump administration can pursue its goals without going to war with its own workforce. This paper proposes two carrots—acknowledging the strengths of the workforce and reducing the number of political appointees— and two sticks—increasing incentives for quality performance and realigning functions to the least cost component able to do the job.

Acknowledging the strengths of the workforce. Acknowledging civilian workforce strengths in administration statements and appearances sets a tone of respect and mutual purpose. Robert Hale calls this, “harnessing the power of praise.” A particularly good venue is the annual awards ceremony for senior civil service executives. Having the president or vice president attend would make an important statement.

Cutting the number of political appointees. This would constitute the kind of bold, break-with-the-past stroke that Trump has advocated. It would help career staff in two ways. First, it would increase career opportunities. In some organizations, for example, political appointees go four levels down, thus sharply limiting how high career personnel can rise. Second, it would increase access to decisionmakers. Often, career staff can’t even get in to see decisionmakers because of the cloud of special assistants that has grown up around senior officials.

Finally, decreasing the number of political appointees would shrink the size of the bureaucracy, which both President-elect Trump and the Republicans in Congress have long wanted to do.


Dual Goal


Decreasing the number of political appointees would shrink the size of the bureaucracy, which both President-elect Trump and the Republicans in Congress have long wanted to do.

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Increasing quality and accountability. The administration has many possible mechanisms here. For example, it could propose legislation that ties annual pay increases to performance. It could make civilian hiring easier. It could lengthen the amount of time that new employees are in probationary status beyond the current two years. A more radical proposal would be to require all job incumbents, especially those in senior positions, to re-compete for their jobs after a period of time, say five years. This would provide a mechanism to push out low performers, although there would need to be provisions to give losers a soft landing. These changes could be implemented government-wide or just in DOD.

Realigning functions to the least cost component able to do the job. The Trump administration might begin with a hiring freeze, as it has pledged, but concurrently it should conduct an analysis of the entire workforce—for DOD, that means active duty military, reserves, civilians, and contractors. One element of the analysis should be recognition of the rising costs and difficulty in recruiting military personnel. DOD needs to get away from the “conscription mentality” that regards them as “free” and plentiful. In fact, military personnel are scarce and expensive. Substituting civilians (and contractors) may be a prudent step.

This analysis should also assess the fully burdened costs of each workforce element—that is, personnel costs with all benefits and support included— as the Defense Business Board has long recommended, and as the department has recently made progress on. That will allow decisionmakers to make true apples-to-apples cost comparisons. With this information, functions can be aligned to the least cost component able to do the job, consistent with policies on inherently governmental functions. Civilian employment might decline, rise, or shift as a result, and such changes are painful for those involved, but there would be a stronger rationale for the eventual structure.

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Cite this Page

Mark Cancian and defense360, "Reforming the Civilian Workforce: Two Carrots and Two Sticks," Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 11, 2017, last modified January 11, 2017,