There is a lot of garment rending and teeth gnashing going on with respect to the impact that a sequester in FY 2014 might have on the civil servants working in the Department of Defense. Two weeks ago, somebody leaked a Pentagon memo to Tony Capaccio at Bloomberg, which says the DOD might not use furloughs next year to deal with the budget cuts. Instead, the memo says, the Pentagon might put 6,272 jobs on the chopping block, using a Reduction in Force (RIF) to eliminate personnel altogether.
This makes for a good headline, but maybe the headline is more meaningful than the story. We are, as I have said many times, in a defense drawdown. During a drawdown, everything gets smaller. The uniformed military gets smaller, the Pentagon's civil service gets smaller, the number of carrier battle groups, brigades, and air wings all decline. It is what happens after a war.
In reality, 6,272 people in a total civil service workforce of roughly 800,000 don't constitute much -- about three quarters of a percent. During the drawdowns after the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the end of the Cold War, the civil service in the Pentagon shrank between 16 and 34 percent over 10 years. It is a normal event, not a horror story. But like the Pentagon's chilling readiness stories, and the initial warnings about furloughs, horror sells in a budget war.
As I have argued for months, the Pentagon ought to be planning for the drawdown, sequester or not, including by shrinking civilian employment. It is worth noting that, while the level of active-duty personnel stayed relatively flat -- 3-percent growth -- over the past decade (the Army and Marines grew, but the Navy and the Air Force shrank), the civilian workforce at the Pentagon actually grew roughly 17 percent.
Good public policy says that level of personnel need not stay the same, with recent wars ended or ending. Better public policy says the DOD should not be warning of RIFs, but instead be doing the same force planning on the civilian side that it is doing on the military side, assuming that personnel will continue to decline over the next decade. The civil service is part of the Pentagon's very large "back office" -- the 42 percent of the budget that goes to management and administrative infrastructure, but not the "point of the spear."
Shrinking the back office needs to start now, aggressively. And not in a ham-handed "we may have to RIF you" way, but through careful force planning. This means starting by asking, "What do we do that we don't need to do?" And then, "Who is doing it?" If the DOD does this right, it may not even have to RIF people to achieve the savings.