How big is the federal workforce, really?

diagram of work team 

President Donald Trump's administration has been intent on reversing the workforce expansion that took place under President Barack Obama, and instead wants to shrink the workforce and lean more on the private sector.

But according to New York University Professor Paul Light’s calculations measuring the exact size of the federal workforce over time, the premise of the White House’s management agenda may not tell the full story.

In a new report, Light estimates that the size of the 1984 total federal government workforce — federal employees, contractors, grant employees, active-duty military, and postal carriers — was just shy of 9.8 million, of which 21.2 percent were full-time federal employees.

After bottoming out during the Clinton administration and the early part of the George W. Bush administration, the size of the workforce peaked, according to Light’s calculation, in 2010 at almost 11.3 million employees, mostly due to rises in contractors and grant employees that began under the Bush administration.

Light pegs the current number — for a much larger U.S. population — at around 9.1 million employees, about 22.4 percent of which are full-time feds and the rest coming from contractors.

Reducing the size of the federal workforce and leaning more on the private sector have been mainstays of the Trump administration’s management agenda, driven by drastic proposed cuts to civilian agencies.

At an Oct. 5 National Press Club event hosted by the Volcker Alliance, Light proposed that asking if the federal workforce is too big may be viewing the question through the wrong prism.

“Whether it’s properly blended is a much better question,” he said. “What should be reserved as a function that is solely the responsibility of federal employees” rather than private contractors?

Necessary reform, Light said, entails focusing on ways to hire the next generation, prioritizing mission-critical positions and expediting the hiring process, not a “frivolous” hiring freeze that serves as “a distraction from more realistic and useful reforms,” such as a revamped hiring process and incentive structure.

“The federal government is not responsive to the market pressure that have made critical skills more rewardable in the private sector,” he said.

Project of Government Oversight Executive Director Danielle Brian said the government’s inability to reform has led a reliance on contractors for services like IT that is “replacing the knowledge base” of the federal government.

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, added, “the privatization we’re seeing now is a backdoor to a spoils system.”

Ornstein also questioned Congress and the current administration's appetite for productive civil service reform.

“It takes both parties deciding that you want to make government work better... It takes a broader understanding the system is broken. It takes a president who really does want to do a reform,” he said. “We don’t have any of those elements there now.”

Without reform, and with continued vacancies and the administration’s lack of trust in senior officials, “for some time, we’re going to have inept government at different levels, and you have plenty of people that are perfectly willing to let that happen, and that’s frightening,” Ornstein said.

Additionally, Light said the White House’s plan to rely on attrition and buyouts as part of its plan to restructure government could result in imbalances in mission-critical positions.

The 18 Democratic members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee penned a letter Oct. 5 to chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) asking Gowdy to obtain copies of the recently submitted agency reorganization plans from OMB, as well as a hearing on the status of the workforce under the Trump administration.

“If Trump administration officials truly believe their policies will make our nation safer, make our air and water cleaner and make American families healthier, they should prove it in the full light of day,” the legislators write. “They should submit their plans to Congress, they should testify under oath and they should answer questions from members of our committee.”

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter


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