A different way of thinking about the size of government

By Brandon Lardy | October 23, 2019

In the public debate about the “proper” size of government, the discussion often overlooks the fact that the number of federal employees relative to the size of the U.S. population has been shrinking. Even as the number and complexity of services provided by government has increased over the years, the amount of federal civilian employees has stayed relatively stable. In absolute terms, today’s workforce of about 2 million people is smaller than the workforce that served at the height of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

The challenge for government is that the U.S. population that employees now serve is 329 million people—130 million more people than there were in 1967.

Data sources: U.S. Census Bureau and Office of Personnel Management

The graph above shows the federal workforce as a percentage of the total U.S. population is at a near historic low. In fact, the federal workforce as a share of the population has fallen by 14% just since 2010, driven by a net loss of 12,400 employees and an increase in population of 17 million people.

At the end of fiscal 2018, the workforce represented 0.6% of the population, a far cry from the historic high of nearly 2.5% in 1945.

Because federal agencies are serving a growing population with a workforce that is shrinking in proportion, efficiency is critically important. Whether agency leaders are working to improve the customer experience at government agencies or reduce improper payments by government programs, they must find ways to use data and technologies, such as artificial intelligence, to transform how government does business. And with this transformation, the workforce will also have to evolve.

Next on Fed Figures, we’ll take a closer look at the geography of the federal workforce. Do you have ideas for future Fed Figures posts? Send them to us at blardy@ourpublicserivce.org.


Brandon Lardy