Counting federal employees is no simple task

The federal workforce is on the hot seat as policymakers try to cut costs, but the simple question of how big the workforce is yields no definitive answer.


Mark Twain’s observation that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” suggests that a weak, even a false argument can be made to seem more credible with numbers. It's a suitable observation for a year when the federal workforce has been a political football. Are there too many federal employees? Are they overpaid?

Candidates for Congress and the White House, not to mention sitting lawmakers writing bills, have been arguing for a long time now about whether measures such as reducing the number of federal employees, freezing or cutting their pay and reducing the amount and frequency of bonuses could make a difference to the federal deficit. Critics and defenders of the workforce alike turn to the numbers to buttress their cases.

One reason the arguments can continue with no real resolution is that even as basic a fact as how many federal employees there actually are is more complicated to determine than it seems. Currently, there are three main sources to use when counting the federal workforce, said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service -- and they can yield different answers.

The first one is OPM's FedScope, which provides statistical information about the federal civilian workforce. Users can access and analyze the most popular data elements from OPM's Central Personnel Data File /Enterprise Human Resources Integration. The tool provides five years' worth of employment, accession and separation data. The data reported is, in essence, a head count of all the federal employees on the payroll in the executive branch (except for the CIA and some other national security organizations that do not report on the number of employees they have.)

FedScope includes all employees – permanent, temporary, full-time, and part-time -- but a user can screen for selected variables.  On March 2012, for example, FedScope reported a total of 2,102,269 executive branch employees. Of those, however, only 1,877,990 are full-time, permanent employees. Also, these numbers don't include uniformed military personnel, or data on the Postal Service. It excludes legislative and judicial branch employees. 

The annual budget also provides numbers on the workforce, particularly the historical perspectives section and the analytical perspectives section, both of which report federal workforce numbers as Full-Time Equivalents (FTEs). (FTEs are calculated by counting the number of hours worked and dividing by 2,080 -- the number of work hours in a year for someone working 40 hours a week. One person working 40 hours a week is one FTE; two people working 20 hours per week each also make one FTE.)

The latter website does have data that combines staff years from all three branches of government and the Postal Service, but not National Guard or reserve military members. It shows, for example, that there were 4,356,178 total FTEs used by the federal government in FY 2011.

The third source is the Historical Federal Workforce Tables for Executive Branch Civilian Employment since 1940 on the OPM website, which include end-of-fiscal-year count, excluding the Postal Service. For 2010, the tables estimate the federal workforce to be 2.133 million for just the executive branch.  It counts the total number of full-time permanent, temporary, part-time, and intermittent employees on board at the end of each fiscal year.

 All of these numbers are accurate, but they are derived using different methods which present different outcomes because of the variables, Palguta cautioned. A headcount, for example, may or may not include temporary or seasonal employees. Interns and student employees could also at times be excluded from the tally, as may part-time workers. Calculations sometimes include members of Congress or the legislative branch, or even Postal Service, and sometimes not. The numbers can also be manipulated by playing around with the time frames.

“So you have to be careful whom you’re counting or not counting,” Palguta stressed.

Knowing the historical context also adds nuance to and better understanding of the numbers. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the federal government gained a new area of focus in national security and homeland safety issues. The Homeland Security Department was created and the Transportation Security Administration federated, meaning the workforce suddenly grew bigger, Palguta said.

But today, “relative to the private sector, the federal workforce is less than half the size it was back in the 1950s and 1960s,” according to the analytical perspective in the 2013 budget, he said.

A related political issue is whether the burden of paying for government employees falls on the taxpayers. In many cases, it doesn't. For example, the budget's analytical perspectives show the 2013 increases in nonsecurity agencies are narrowly focused and often supported by congressionally authorized fees rather than taxpayer dollars.

Those fees support “timely commercialization of innovative technologies through faster and higher-quality patent reviews at the Patent and Trade Office of DOC, stronger food safety measures at the Food and Drug Administration of HHS, and enhancements to create stronger, more stable financial markets consistent with the Wall Street Reform Act,” according to the section.

Whenever there’s an increase in the federal workforce, it isn’t about “employees sitting idle,” Palguta said. “This is not a partisan issue, but what’s been asked of the government,” he said.

These sentiments are supported by a February 2012 analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan policy organization. The authors, Richard Kogan and Robert Greenstein, argued the claim of an explosive growth in government's size and reach contradicts the record. While government has seen a modest expansion, it’s due to the impact on Social Security and Medicare of rising health costs and aging citizens, they wrote.

 “[W]hen Americans hear talk of the government exploding in size and reach, they don't usually think this means that more people will receive Social Security and Medicare because the population is growing older or that Medicare will cost more because of factors like the aging of the baby boomers and advances in medical technology that improve health and prolong life but at significant cost,” Kogan and Greenstein wrote. “Outside of those demographic and health cost factors, the portrait of a rapidly growing federal behemoth is simply at odds with reality, since costs are shrinking to levels well below their historical averages.”
 

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