New Analysis Counters Claim that Federal Workforce Grew in Recent Years

President Trump should better target efforts to right-size government, scholar argues.

The perpetual quest for the right size of an effective U.S. government should start with a realistic inventory of the “blended workforce” of civil servants, contractors and grant recipients, a scholar of government argued in a new pair of papers with fresh research.

“Most experts agree that the federal leadership hierarchy is now much too tall, wide and isolating, but the flattening must be done with care, not through benign or deliberate neglect,” wrote Paul C. Light, professor of public service at New York University and a long-time specialist in government reform.

Light challenged President Trump’s statement in a February interview that he did not plan to fill all federal executive vacancies. “Trump’s decision to simply ignore jobs that he perceives as unnecessary will reduce his control of government,” Light said in the papers produced for the nonprofit Volcker Alliance, which promotes improvements in public service. “Moreover, it will decimate the governing links between the top of his departments and bottom of his agencies. The less he knows about what is happening in government, the more likely he is to be at the helm of highly visible breakdowns such as the veterans waiting list scandal and continued problems at the Secret Service.”

Compiling the true size of the federal workforce is a baffling task made harder by a lack of transparency at the Office of Management and Budget, Light told an audience on Thursday at the National Press Club. “We know a lot about federal employees, but we don’ know a lot about contractors and grant recipients,” he said. “There are multiple personnel systems—why not have one?”

His paper tracking recent decades of history of the blended workforce titled “The True Size of Government” concluded that as of 2015, there were 2,042,000 federal employees, but the total rises to 9,134,000 if one includes contractors (3,702,000); grant employees (1,583,000); active-duty military personnel (1,315,000); and Postal Service employees (492,000).

That broader number is up from the total during the Clinton administration, but lower than the total during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “The number of federal, contract, and grant employees held steady from 1984 to 1994; dropped from 1995 to 1999; increased slightly between 1999 and 2002; surged to a record high between 2002 and 2010; then fell between 2010 and 2015,” the paper said.

What has grown, however, are managerial positions—jobs with the words “deputy” and “assistant” in their titles—a trend Light called “layering” in his accompanying fact sheet titled “People on People on People: The Continued Thickening of Government.” Data show that the number of federal layers increased from 17 to 71 (by 318 percent) from 1961 to 2016, while the number of leaders in those layers rose from 451 to 3,265 over the same period, marking a 624 percent increase.

Light rebutted the claims by Trump White House in instituting January’s hiring freeze that the Obama and George W. Bush administrations greatly expanded the workforce—by 17 percent or 300,000.

“Obama never got credit” for reductions in the workforce, Light said, and Reagan “deserves more credit than he gets for downsizing.”

Light’s research is not intended to advocate for larger or smaller government, or for a prescribed balance between in-house work and contracted work. Rather, he said he hopes it will lead to reform of federal employment and the blended workforce so that people are “at the right place at the right price.” Reforms are needed to tackle what he called “big cavities” of skill gaps in mission-critical occupations, barriers to federal employee engagement and too many “apples-to-oranges” pay comparisons, weakened internal oversight and a “sluggish” presidential appointments process. To quickly attract more young applicants, Light said, “Government has got to be a better employer.”

The cloudiness surrounding the true size of government can lead, Light said, to what founding father Alexander Hamilton warned of as the “deadly adversaries of small republican government--cabal, intrigue and corruption.” In modern terms, that could translate into outside-the-mission actions by contractors in “the industrial base” with connections to the White House or Congress. Examples he gave are such mishaps as the intelligence leading up the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and “enhanced interrogation” of prisoners.

The cure for “being insulated from oversight” is transparency, Light added. Approaches by Trump and some in Congress to simply reduce the federal workforce won’t achieve proper personnel reform, he said. “You have to go to the mission. What are we going to give up? Where are we going to have longer waiting lines” for agency service.

Trump’s January hiring freeze was “frivolous and a distraction,” said Light, predicting for his audience that the next two years will bring an exodus of 100,000-200,000 federal employees taking voluntary buyouts. Though he can only speculate, Light guessed that the federal workforce under Trump will go down from 2 million to 1.9 million or 1.8 million. “It’s going to be significant,” he predicted.