The Size of the Federal Workforce: Rapid Growth for Some, Stagnation for Others

Since the 2010 elections, the federal workforce has frequently found itself at the center of the debate over government spending. The argument is often made that the number of federal workers has been growing unabated since President Obama came to office, resulting in a serious strain on the federal budget. As a result, members of both the House and Senate have recently introduced bills that call for a reduction in the federal workforce by 10% over 10 years through attrition (e.g., by allowing agencies to hire only one new employee for every three that retire).

Given the tremendous amount of attention directed to this issue, we wanted to look at what the data have to say. Specifically, this article addresses the following questions: (1) has the federal workforce expanded in the past 10+ years; (2) if so, has this expansion been equally distributed among all government agencies; and (3) moving away from a look at only the sheer numbers of federal workers, has the federal workforce grown as a percentage of the total civilian workforce?

In order to answer the first question, we turned to data from the Office of Personnel Management on the number of federal employees from 1998 to 2011. As the chart below shows, the number of federal employees has clearly been trending upward in recent years: from September 2007 to September 2011, the number of federal employees increased by 267,885, or 14.4%. While much of this expansion has taken place under President Obama, it began in the final year of the Bush presidency, with an increase from September 2007 to September 2008 of 4.1%.


Source: FedScope, Office of Personnel Management (


But has this growth in staffing been equally distributed among all federal agencies? The following chart looks at the trends in cabinet-level staffing from September 1998 to September 2011, separated by agency:

Source: FedScope, Office of Personnel Management (


By looking closer at the data, a number of things jump out. First, the Department of Defense is by far the largest employer among cabinet-level agencies, making up 40% of all federal employees. Second, the growth in the size of the federal workforce is concentrated in just a few agencies, with Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security seeing the largest increases in staffing. Other agencies, such as the departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Treasury, have seen much slower growth in staffing levels; the Agriculture staff, for example, has seen a growth in staff of just 0.96% since 2007.

Finally, the last issue we wanted to address was how the size of the federal workforce compares to the entire civilian labor force. The next two charts use data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to look at federal employees as a percentage of the total civilian labor force. (To be consistent with the OPM data on the number of federal employees, we’ve taken the figures as of September of each year). The only difference between the two charts is the scale of the axes.

Sources: FedScope, Office of Personnel Management (; Bureau of Labor Statistics (


Sources: FedScope, Office of Personnel Management (; Bureau of Labor Statistics (


Viewed from this perspective, the federal workforce has remained remarkably stagnant over the past decade: both in September 2001 and in September 2011, federal workers represented 1.26% of the total civilian labor force.

In sum, the data on recent trends in federal employment show that while the size of the federal workforce is growing, its proportion of the total civilian labor force is not. Federal employees have remained at or around 1.2% of the total labor force for at least a decade and, given the hiring freeze that has been in place in many agencies, are unlikely to grow much higher. Furthermore, the increases in staffing that we have seen are largely concentrated in just a few agencies. At the very least, this suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing the federal workforce could have disproportionate effects on some agencies more so than others.


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13 thoughts on “The Size of the Federal Workforce: Rapid Growth for Some, Stagnation for Others

  1. You picked labor force rather than employed; you did not mention you left out multiple departments for the fed government–(from the site)
    Executive Branch coverage includes all agencies except the following:

     Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve
     Central Intelligence Agency
     Defense Intelligence Agency
     Foreign Service personnel at the State Department (included until March 2006)
     National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
     National Security Agency
     Office of the Director of National Intelligence
     Office of the Vice President
     Postal Regulatory Commission
     Tennessee Valley Authority
     U.S. Postal Service
     White House Office

    Other exclusions include:

     Foreign Nationals Overseas
     Public Health Service’s Commissioned Officer Corps
     Non-appropriated fund employees

    But the real change comes in FY09–employed individuals dropped 4.3% but fed civ employment GREW 5.2% (using the figures from the two sites). Then again in FY10 fed civ employment GREW 3.7% while overall employed grew .4%. And over 180K salaries (excluding VA doctors) grew from 1000 in 2005 to over 5000 by 2011, a factor of 500%.
    As a % of the workforce, federal civilians (missing the ones above of course) grew from 1.3 to 1.5% of the workforce in the last ten years, all of that growth took place under the current administration.

    • I was thunderstruck when my cousin, a federal employee, told me that the size of the federal workforce as a % of the total workforce has remained the same for 50 years-since 1961. This “fact” is being bandied about by federal employees and seems to have originated with Bill Clinton (snicker), then picked up by the Washington Post.
      How can that be, given the vast increase in the food stamp program administered by the Dept of Agriculture? Or the massive increase in the EPA’s tentacles? I have a chart here from Heritage Foundation’s “Strangled by Red Tape” showing that total FDA staff at 1768 in 1960 had grown to 9,217 by 1994. I haven’t heard of mass firings of Washington bureaucrats! Please explain-Thanks!

      • “here’s a link from Heritage”? Really? Care to try again from a non-partisan source, rather than the birthplace of the Conservatives’ individual mandate?

      • Does it take more employees to issue more food stamps? No.
        As for the FDA, you’re confusing growth in number of employees with growth as a percentage of the total work force. Do you not think the work force grew by a large amount across that same 35 year span? And do you grasp what a small piece of the overall federal government the FDA is?

    • “Executive branch includes the Postal Service, and, beginning in 1970, includes various disadvantaged youth and worker-trainee programs”

      I’d imagine that the PS acocunts for that gap.

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  4. The question is how many employed by the federal goverment. ie federal employees plus public sector funded by the government.

  5. Shouldn’t computers and productivity lead to lower head counts of employees? We need to count independent contractors and supplies too.

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  8. Every think tank says they are non partisan, yet every one of them does have an ideological leaning. They are only non partisan to the side whose views they support. One of the biggest problem today is the quickness to dismiss the message because of the messenger rather than to evaluate the veracity of the message.

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