President Donald Trump has signed an executive order freezing federal civilian workforce hiring. At a press conference today new White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated that the freeze was established because it "counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years." Just one problem: There has not been a dramatic expansion in the federal workforce in recent years. According to the latest Office of Personnel Management, the number of federal civilian employees stands at around 2.7 million, just about where it was in 1966. In fact, civilian federal employment is down from its 1990 peak of just under 3.1 million. Relatively speaking this means that in 1966 there was 1 federal employee per 70 citizens and now there is 1 per 121 citizens.
It does bear noting that number of state and local government employees have increased 7.8 million in 1966 to 19.5 million today*; up from 1 per 24 citizens to 1 per 17 citizens today.
While federal government civilian employment has been essentially flat, it is interesting to consider the role of government contractors. Some have argued that lots of services provided by government contractors should actually be moved into the federal government to achieve greater efficiencies. Setting that argument aside, it is very hard to estimate the number of jobs that are supported by government contracts. A 2015 Congressional Budget Office report noted:
Regrettably, CBO is unaware of any comprehensive information about the size of the federal government's contracted workforce. However, using a database of federal contracts, CBO determined that federal agencies spent over $500 billion for contracted products and services in 2012. Between 2000 and 2012, such spending grew more quickly than inflation and also grew as a percentage of total federal spending. The category of spending that grew the most in dollar terms was contracts for professional, administrative, and management services, and the category that grew the most in percentage terms was contracts for medical services.
So how many jobs might $500 billion create? By one very rough estimate, spending that amount would result in about 5 million jobs. Another study that tried to estimate the number of jobs created per billion dollars spent on infrastructure would boost that number to 11.5 million jobs. So notionally speaking, the federal civilian workforce including contracted employees would be, taking the lower estimate, somewhere around 7.7 million, or about 1 for every 42 citizens. Of course, the wages of contracted employees are not frozen.
Whatever the case for freezing federal employees wages, Spicer and the Trump administration have undermined it by offering up an "alternative fact" with regard to actual trends in the number of civilian federal government employment.
Guys, if you don't want "the most dishonest people on earth" distracting the public from your messages, try harder to get, you know, the fact-facts right.
Disclosure: I was a federal government employee for about 3 years working as a medium-level staff economist for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission 1979-1981. Although it was fairly well paying, I hated my job so much I quit to go work for magazine for half the pay in New York City.
*Number calculated by substracting OPM federal employment numbers from the overall government employment numbers provided by the St. Louis Federal Reserve.