We hear A LOT these days about the size of government, specifically focusing on Washington, DC. We see politicians debate just how much the federal government costs, how bloated it is, and yes, how perhaps the “deep state” impacts our lives. As of this writing (in late September 2023), Washington is in gridlock (well, THAT’S not a shock!) over the size of the government, with a government shutdown perhaps days away…
And heading into the Presidential Election in 2024, we will hear A LOT MORE about the size and state of our government, especially as Republicans push an agenda to “deconstruct the administrative state” - following a plan developed by the Heritage Foundation, known as Project 2025 - in a bid to greatly reduce the size of the civil service and to diminish the scope and influence of government.
However, what most Americans don’t realize is that when they complain about the government being too big, too inefficient, too costly, too intrusive… simply TOO much, the focus on Washington might be - well, is - misdirected. Yes, federal agencies have significant power to impact your life directly - to garnish your wages, to investigate you, and yes, to even incarcerate you - but so too does your state and your local government. But for the average American, the vast majority of whom work in the private sector, their overwhelming gripe with government - overall - is that it is simply too large and too inefficient to “work well.” And most of their - and yes, our - collective ire is focused on Washington, DC as the capital of the “bloated bureaucracy” that is our government. And over the recent decades, candidates from across the political spectrum, from Ronald Reagan to Ross Perot to Donald Trump to Vivek Ramzswany, and yes, even Al Gore, have looked to streamline, downsize, rightsize, or dismantle large swaths of the federal government.
Why is the focus almost solely on the federal government wrong? Well, let’s look at the numbers - and the data, in this case, does tell the story. Recently, the data analytics firm, Chartr, published a brief report entitled “Federal Government Payroll Stunted.” The analysts at Chartr looked at one simple variable - the number of employees found at the three levels of government - federal, state, and local - in the United States. As you can see in Figure 1 (The Growth of Federal, State and Local Government Employment, 1955-Present), 22.6 million Americans are employed at some level of government right now (as of August 2023). But federal employees, numbering 2.9 million, constitute just under 13% (12.83%) of total public sector employment in the U.S. To put that number in perspective, Walmart, the largest private sector employer by far, currently has 2.1 million employees. And in fact, as the reader can see clearly in this chart, federal employment has increased far less - on both a percentage and on a real basis - than has both state and especially local government employment!
Figure 1: The Growth of Federal, State and Local Government Employment, 1955-Present
In point of fact, state and local government workforces have grown with - or actually grown far more than - the U.S. population. As can be seen in Figure 2 (U.S. Population, 1900-2023), the country’s population has, in fact, more than doubled (at over 330 million) since 1950 (when the U.S. population stood at 152 million) and more than tripled - and in fact, almost quadrupled, since 1900! In the face of that staggering population (i.e. customer) growth, federal government employment has, in fact, REALLY lagged behind the growth of the American populace quite significantly. While there have been peaks and valleys in the growth of federal employment, Washington’s total workforce has grown by less than 50% - over almost 80 years and in the face of a doubling - and then some - of the U.S. population since 1950. By way of contrast, total state government employment has grown from approximately a million employees in 1955 to approximately 5.2 million employees in 2023 (yes kids, that adds up to a 500% increase!). However, the biggest “net” growth in “big government” has happened not in Washington, DC or in your respective state capitals, but rather, at the local level. According to the numbers compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, local government workforces have now collectively risen from 3.5 million workers in 1955 to approximately 14.5 million employees today (in 2023)! This amounts to an increase in local government employment of over 400%!
Figure 2: U.S. Population, 1900-2023
Now certainly, as the Chartr analysts wrote in their report, the growth in employment at the state and local levels can be attributed to the essential public functions that are - of necessity - best carried out by the government closer to the citizenry (again, i.e. the customer), things like education, law enforcement, infrastructure projects, and firefighting. The surging numbers in state and especially, local government, employees can also be attributed to the fact that increasingly, state and local governments have been taking on roles that might have formerly been carried out by the federal government (in terms of law enforcement, regulation, and more). In other words, there will always be “stuff’ that needs to be done by a government entity, and if the federal government doesn’t take on particular “stuff” - or if states assert their rights under the 10th Amendment to do that “stuff” - state and local government will need to grow to make up for the vacuum left by the feds or the space created by those government entities closer to their citizenry.
All in all, when one looks at the ACTUAL numbers in terms of the growth of government employment in the United States, it becomes clear that the REAL growth in the government workforce has taken place at the state and local levels predominantly - and not just over the past few years, or since 9/11, or since - ANY single event. Rather, state and local government employment has surged at a rate far outpacing - by a factor of 8 or even 10 - that of the growth of the federal workforce! And so while the focus of much anger, much consternation, and much frustration has been on the growth in the numbers - and power - of the federal government, based in Washington, DC, those who want to slow - or even reverse the size, scope, and power of government, as a whole, REALLY needs to be focused on their respective state capitals, their county seats, and their own towns! If we want to REALLY take a look at “right-sizing” government, then attention should be paid to the governmental entities that are closest to home, rather than on Washington, DC!
In the end, the fundamental question that all of us, as Americans, face is this: Do we see government as a hindrance - or a solution - to our problems? Then President Ronald Reagan famously encapsulated this sentiment in his famous quip - or infamous saying - way back in 1986, about “The Nine Most Terrifying Words in the English Language:”
So, is government the enemy? Or rather is government the solution? Is the government meant to be a neutral arbiter, or is it meant to be an active participant in promoting the “greater good?” These are fundamental questions about the nature and role of government, and yes, in today’s hyperpartisan, hypercharged, hyper…. well EVERYTHING political environment. And so yes, it is unlikely that we, as a country, will be able to generate anything approaching a consensus by 2023, 2024, or beyond. However, if we want to take a rational look at the role of government in ALL of our lives - not red lives, not blue lives, not purple or ANY other color lives - we REALLY should have a debate - and a spirited one at that - on exactly how big that we want government - and derivatively, the government workforce - to be. Across the entirety of the political spectrum, from the most conservative to the most liberal amongst us, this debate will surely rage over the years, if not the decades, as it has to this moment. And yet, the future of government - at every level, federal, state, and local - will, in large part, be determined by how the populace (and once again, to reiterate, the customers) perceive the value in government (i.e. why they are there and what they are doing that promotes, if not my interest, then the general interest of the community they serve).
And so as we enter a VERY uncertain time - with climate change, national, state and local elections, and, as always, the unknown - coming into 2024, the debate over the proper size, role, and scope of government is likely to only increase going forward - into the 2024 election cycle and beyond. For government officials, at ALL levels, there will be a felt need to really, REALLY tangibly demonstrate your worth to those whom you serve. Otherwise, in an era where the American citizenry - red, blue, purple, or ANY political color - are seriously looking at the size, scope, and effectiveness of government at large, to be out of step politically, as a leader of ANY government entity today, carries HUGE downside risks.
We are today in an era where ANYONE or ANYTHING can be instantly canceled! But, if our government is canceled, where do we go? The answer is a Pandora’s Box that likely no one - on Team MAGA, Team Anti-MAGA, or somewhere in between, should yes, fear to go!
This is the time for political leaders and administrative heads in every agency at every level of government to focus on one thing: Demonstrate your value to the public. Otherwise, you, and your job and those of those around you and under you, may well be swept up in the hysteria - some justified, some TOTALLY unjustified - over reducing the size, scope, impact, and intrusiveness of government. And so far all those employed in the public sector, from their local town to their state capital to the seat of the federal government in Washington, DC, you - yes, you - will be more and more called upon to justify what you do and why. No longer is the “administrative state” some ethereal concept. For many Americans today, it is VERY real and yes, something that may need to be extinguished - unless good, purposeful arguments win the day!
About David Wyld
David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld. You can subscribe to his Medium article feed at: https://davidwyld.medium.com/subscribe.
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