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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.