The True Size of Government

Thursday, October 5, 2017
Paul C. Light
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  • The Washington Post's Joe Davidson with Professor Light
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  • Thomas W. Ross, Volcker Alliance President
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  • Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight
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  • Norman J. Ornstein, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
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  • Joe Davidson, Columnist for The Washington Post
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This paper by Paul C. Light, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Volcker Alliance and the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, demonstrates that the number of federal employees has remained almost constant since 1984. Periods of growth in the federal workforce over the past four decades have been largely driven by upticks in the number of contract and grant employees. As of 2015, there were 2.6 contract or grant employees for each federal employee, a decrease from the ratio of 3.4 contract or grant employees per federal employee in 2010. His 2015 tally measures the federal workforce at 9.1 million, including 2 million federal employees, 3.7 million contract employees, 1.6 million grant employees, 1.3 million active-duty military personnel, and 492,000 postal service employees.

Prof. Light released this paper at a press conference in Washington, DC at the National Press Club. The findings discussed by a panel that featured Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight; Joe Davidson, Columnist for The Washington Post; Norman J. Ornstein, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Thomas W. Ross, President of the Volcker Alliance.

The True Size of Government charts the impact of every administration since Ronald Reagan on the size of the federal government, concluding that war and peace are the most important factors in shaping the true size of the federal government’s blended workforce. He draws attention to the question of why the federal government turns to contract and grant employees when its staffing needs surge, detailing fifteen demographic, bureaucratic, and political pressures that weaken the case for using federal employees to execute federal laws. He concludes that comprehensive reform is necessary to achieve the “proper blending of government and industry” that will best serve the public interest.

Read the interactive publication: The True Size of Government