Too Tough To Count


Voters are hearing a lot about federal spending this campaign season with some Republicans citing bloated federal programs and President Obama pushing to streamline agencies as he seeks reelection. The size of the federal workforce likely will be one measure politicians cite as proof of how big or small government really is.

In January, President Obama asked Congress for additional authority to re-organize the executive branch. If granted, he would first aim his new consolidation authority at the Commerce Department and other trade-related organizations.

But how many people work at these agencies? Like federal spending figures thrown out on the campaign trail, head counts can get political too. The federal workforce has either grown or shrunk since Obama took office, depending on which side of the aisle is counting.

According to Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, “It certainly makes it easy to make your point by being selective about what data you report.” Regardless, gauging a wholly accurate figure for the number of employees receiving a paycheck from Uncle Sam is a tall order even for the most impartial bean counter. 

For example, does the total include U.S. Postal Service workers? Part-time and temporary employees? Staff added to agency payrolls due to congressional mandates? Lawmakers? Even counting or discounting these things to suit one’s political view, what about federal contractors? Analysts estimate the federal government spent $516.7 billion on contractors in 2010: How many people are behind that expenditure?

There are several places to look for data on the size of the federal workforce, but the general story goes something like this: Federal employment in the 1950s and 1960s was comparatively high, with 14.4 federal workers for every 1,000 U.S. residents during the Nixon administration. That ratio dropped in the 1980s and 1990s to 11.9 per 1,000 residents under Reagan, 12.3 under George H.W. Bush and 11.1 during the Clinton years. The trend reversed right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks due to gains at the Defense Department and the creation of the Homeland Security Department. The size of the civilian workforce has flattened to 8.4 federal workers per 1,000 citizens during the Obama administration, according to figures from the Office of Management and Budget and the Census Bureau recently published in The Washington Post.

According to OMB’s fiscal 2013 budget documents, 2.1 million people worked for the executive branch in fiscal 2012. This figure measures FTEs, or full-time equivalent positions, which are slots on the payroll that add up to a full work week. The count excludes Postal Service employees.

The Office of Personnel Management tallies workers slightly differently. Charts on the agency’s website allow users to count employees by selecting varying factors. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, cites the biggest estimate offered by OPM, which includes part-time and temporary workers. That number reveals that although federal hiring increased steadily in national security sectors during the George W. Bush years, the total workforce grew by 200,000 between the end of that administration and today.

In February, Issa gathered a panel of lawmakers and analysts for a hearing titled “Why Reshuffling Government
Agencies Won’t Solve the Federal Government’s Obesity Problem.” The panel focused on Obama’s consolidation initiative, but it also put contrasting federal personnel narratives on display.

“This expansion has occurred with little concern for streamlining government service to maximize the use of taxpayer dollars,” Issa said. Unsurprisingly, Democrats at the hearing told a different story, from pages torn out of the White House’s budget books. 

“The number of federal employees per 1,000 in the population was 13.3 in the Kennedy administration, 14.4 under Nixon and is now 8.3, the lowest in 50 years,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., citing more OMB estimates. “We’re 350,000 below what we had under the George H.W. Bush administration. We’ve cut out a lot of fat and are leaner and meaner.”

A closer look at OMB’s data shows they do square roughly with the numbers Issa cites. By OMB’s count, there are about 180,000 more federal employees now than there were before Obama took office. This figure appears in the historical analysis accompanying the fiscal 2013 budget.

The Obama administration’s budget crunchers don’t argue with this estimate, but they quickly point out that the numbers Issa favors include temporary and part-time employees while OMB’s do not.

OMB officials also take issue with some of the big government rhetoric. They note Republican lawmakers at the hearing, for example, failed to mention some of the upticks such as the increase in Border Patrol employees under Obama were a result of congressional mandates. “Agency staffing plans are dependent upon the level of funds appropriated by Congress,” says OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack. “It is therefore critical for budgeting that we have data on the number of full-time equivalent employees supported in each agency.”

Another issue is contractors, which makes the size of the federal workforce nearly impossible to calculate. Some academics have tried. According to Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University, 14 million is the best total federal workforce estimate. This figure counts full-time equivalents, the Postal Service, military members and contractors. 

But Fuller points out that contractors do not have to report how many of their employees work on federal programs—only the amount of money agencies spend on the projects. Nobody can really know the right number, making the size of government’s outside workforce an even bigger target for political manipulation, he says.

“When you count up the federal contractors, how do you know they are working for the federal government?” Fuller says. “If you want a big number, you count everyone who works for a federal contractor regardless of who is working for the government that day.” He cites large firms in the Washington area, such as SAIC, as examples of companies that perform large-volume governmental and nongovernmental work. “It’s an issue of trying to make your point and being potentially careless,” he adds.

According to Fuller, academics like Light make their estimates in good faith, likely without political motives. But counting contractors just might be too complicated.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 400,000 to 600,000 employees make up the federal contracting workforce in the Washington metro area alone. If there’s variation in those numbers, Fuller reasons, the same must exist overall. “We have a much bigger federal workforce than is reflected [in government estimates], and the federal government couldn’t function without them,” he says. “These arguments are specious at best. It doesn’t matter which party is making them.”

It’s possible that Congress, with all the bickering about spending and cuts to federal benefits and pensions, sees this too. 

The size of the federal workforce is a Goldilocks conundrum—with some analysts saying it’s too big, others saying too small and some saying just right. But others point out it’s not just size that matters. “There is too much bureaucracy and not enough front-line employees,” says Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for Issa. At the February hearing, he says, “all agreed that fundamental reforms are needed to allow the federal workforce to become a leaner, results-oriented, performance-driven and more effective institution.”

The question then becomes whether Congress can agree on what workforce structure is just right. 

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