Damned Government Workers?

Among the most popular sports in the US is making fun at the incompetence of public workers. The default position, drilled into us by the Far Right, is that government can do nothing right.

But the next time you blame government, think again. That government worker or agency you blame is more likely a private enterprise.

NYU’s Paul Light has made the composition of government one of his focuses of study. His findings include that the largest percentage of “government” workers are private contractors. This shift, he argues means profound changes for government and the country, and a betrayal of this country’s founding traditions.

I include here excerpts from two recent studies by Light.

Paul Light, The New True Size of Government (August 2006)

Preliminary estimates of the true size of government in 2005 confirm the continued growth of the true size of government, especially at the Defense Department. By 2005, the true size of government reached 14.6 million employees in 2005, including 1.9 million civil servants, 770,000 postal workers, 1.44 million military personnel, 7.6 million contractors, and 2.9 million grantees. With the vast expansion in the contract-generated workforce, which reflected a nearly $50 billion increase in contract spending between 2004 and 2005 alone, there were five-and-a-half contractors and grantees for every federal civil servant, up from just three-and-a-half at the end of the cold war.

Readers are warned that these estimates are softer than my earlier numbers because of a shift in how the federal government tracks contract expenditures. Departments and agencies are now required to use an entirely new coding system for reporting transactions, which has led to delays and mistakes in the final data set. As a result, about $75 billion of the $375 billion in 2005 contract expenditures could not be tracked by the exact destination or purchase, which meant that the dollars could not be used in estimating contract-generated jobs without assigning them to other expenditures on a proportional basis.
. . .
As the Bush Administration makes the turn to its final two years, it has overseen the most significant increase in recent history in the largely hidden workforce of contractors and grantees who work for the federal government. Fueled by nearly $400 billion in contracts in 2005 and another $100 billion in grants, the true size of the federal government now stands at 14.6 million employees, which includes civil servants, postal workers, military personnel, contractors, and grantees. The total is up from 12.1 million in 2002, and just 11 million in 1999.

More than half of the 2005 total is composed of contract employees, which accounted for an estimated 7.6 million jobs. This number is up nearly 2.5 million since 2002, the last year that the true size of the federal workforce was measured, and the most recent year for which complete data are available. And it is up 3.2 million since 1999. As such, the growth in contract employees between 2002 and 2005 marks both the single largest absolute and percentage increase since 1990 at the end of the cold war, which produced sharp declines in the number of civilian, military, and contactor employees during the 1990s. All of the increase in contract employees is due to increased spending at the Department of Defense. The trend is tracked in the table attached to this fact-sheet.

A Government Ill Executed: The Depletion of the Federal Service (2007)

A Workforce at Risk

The federal workforce may well be the most beleaguered workforce in America. Indeed, the federal service performs the impossible everyday in part because it lacks the resources to do anything else.

The evidence comes from my 2001 and 2002 random-sample surveys of federal employees, business, and nonprofit employees, the federal service is losing energy fast, imperiling Hamilton’s five attributes of vigor and expedition in executing the laws:

(1) full dedication to the missions of government, (2) work that allows the full exercise of expertise, (3) the adequate provision of support, (4) rewards for a job well done and discipline for a job done poorly, and (5) respect of the public served.

The True Size of Government

The rising tides of reform speak to a general frustration with government’s ability to perform, but much of that performance is now dependent on a hidden workforce of contractors, grantees, and state and local employees who labor under federal mandates. Although this workforce is essential to implementing the federal mission, there is cause for concern about the costs embedded in continued outsourcing, especially given the lack of an experienced cadre of federal employees to oversee the activity.

There is no question that this hidden workforce is growing. Although the true size of government dropped sharply in the years following the end of the cold war, it began rising in the late 1990s and has been growing ever since. In 1999, for example, the true size of government had reached its lowest level in more than a decade, dropping to just 11 million civil servants, postal workers, military personnel, and contract- and grant-generated employees. Six years later in 2005, the true size of government had risen to 14.6 million, largely driven by the burgeoning war on terrorism and the Iraq War. Most of the increase did not come from the purchase of goods but from services such as computer programming, management assistant, and temporary labor.

The hidden workforce is only occasionally governed by performance-based contracts. But even if such contracts existed, the federal government would lack the capacity either to measure that performance or track actual expenditures. Having resisted every effort to get an accurate headcount of its employees, the federal government has little choice but to accept reassurances it is actually reaping the benefits of competition among private contractors and grantees, even though recent industry consolidations suggest that the federal government is increasingly dependent on suppliers who rarely compete at all.

It is impossible to claim that the hidden workforce of contractors and grantees is not doing its job either effectively or at reasonable cost, if only because such a claim would require more information and oversight than overworked federal procurement officers now have.

I highly recommend reading the full reports.

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