Government by the Numbers

A government of roughly 12 million employees isn't necessarily bad. It merely reflects the total workforce required to deliver the promises the federal government has made. The totals are even larger when state and local employees who work for the federal government under funded and unfunded mandates are added. As of 1996, the state and local share of the federal workforce was 4.7 million, and that hasn't changed.

A

s Democrats and federal employee unions battle the Bush administration's proposal to put thousands of federal jobs up for competition, the government's hidden workforce has crept to its highest level since the end of the Cold War.

According to new estimates by the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service, which I direct, federal contracts and grants generated just over 8 million jobs in 2002, up by more than 1 million since 1990. When these off-budget jobs are added to the civil service and military head count, the true size of the workforce stood at 12.1 million in October 2002, up from 11 million in October 1999.

The true size of government is still smaller than it was before1990. The end of the Cold War resulted in cutbacks of more than 2 million on- and off-budget jobs at the Defense and Energy departments and NASA by 1999. But according to the center's triennial inventory, based in part on estimates generated by Eagle Eye Publishers, the federal government has added back more than half of that head-count savings.

But even as cuts were under way at Defense, Energy and NASA, other agencies added roughly 300,000 jobs back into government between 1993 and 1999. In the three years since, civilian agencies have added 550,000 more jobs and Defense has added roughly 500,000.

Although some of the post-1999 growth was in the final year of the Clinton administration, most of the 1.1 million new on- and off-budget jobs reflect increased spending on the Bush administration's watch. Many of these jobs have been added at agencies involved in the war on terrorism, but many have also been added at other agencies, such as the Health and Human Services Department.

The number of contract workers would have been even higher, and civil service cuts even deeper, had the Bush administration won its battle to contract out the passenger and baggage screener jobs at the new Transportation Security Administration. But even though screeners are federal employees, the Transportation Security Administration still uses contractors to recruit and hire screeners and manage day-to-day personnel and administrative functions. The Bush administration and its allies in the Republican-controlled House also won the battle to allow contractors to operate the checkpoints at five major airports.

Overall, the center's figures confirm four trends:

  • The federal civil service will continue to shrink.
    Even as the contract- and grant-generated workforce has grown by 1.5 million jobs since 1990, the federal civil service has shrunk by nearly 500,000 jobs. The civil service is only the tip of a very large hidden government, but it is shrinking nonetheless.
  • The peace dividend in employment from the end of the Cold War will soon be gone.
    Employment outside Defense, Energy and NASA actually increased by more than 300,000 jobs from 1990 to 1999 as the Clinton administration spent part of the peace dividend on domestic priorities and added 1.1 million jobs between 1999 and 2002. At this rate, the peace dividend of nearly 2 million jobs will almost certainly be gone in the next few years. Rebuilding Iraq will make sure of it.
  • The contractor workforce is growing across government.
    Except for Energy, NASA and a handful of other civilian agencies, contract and grant-generated employment has been growing across government. The growth in Defense has come entirely through contracts, while the one-third of the growth at non-Defense agencies has been through contracts and two-thirds through grants.

The government has arrived at this diverse workforce more by accident than intent. Driven by attrition and hiring freezes, agencies have gone every which way to build a workforce that can do the job. According to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the military head count may include up to 320,000 jobs that have migrated from its civil service workforce to the military because the civilian hiring process is so sluggish.

It is time for a real accounting of all the jobs in government-put them all on the table and ask who should do what. This means more than putting civil service jobs up for competition with the private sector. It also means a deliberate sorting of when and where to use contractors, grantees, state and local employees, military personnel and federal civilians to do the work. The real issue is who can do the job best, not how many people it will take to do it. If this means bringing jobs back into government, so be it.


Paul C. Light is director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service and a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.

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