How large is the U.S. government’s contract workforce? The answer could help gauge how much federal agencies are outsourcing work to the private sector.

But no one has managed to nail down a definitive number to date. That includes the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which took a crack at it after the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee requested an analysis.

“Regrettably, CBO is unaware of any comprehensive information about the size of the federal government’s contracted workforce,” the CBO said in a letter to Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Wednesday.


(Jacquelyn Martin/AP) – Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

So the question remains unanswered, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know how much money is spent on contracting.

The CBO said government agencies spent more than $500 billion on outside products and services in 2012, based on the federal contracting database. The number represents a rapid increase over the past dozen years, with the costs growing more rapidly than inflation.

Federal spending on contracts grew by 87 percent between 2000 to 2012, an average of about 5 percent per year. By comparison, inflation averaged less than 3 percent each year during that span.

Contracting also grew as a percentage of total federal spending during that time. It accounted for 11 percent in 2000 and 15 percent in 2012, the CBO said.

In terms of raw dollars, most of the expansion occurred with professional, administrative and management services, while medical services saw the greatest increase percentage-wise.

The government may not have a handle on the size of its contract workforce, but the CBO analysis gives federal-employee advocates a sense of the extent to which recent administration’s, including the current one, have relied on the private sector instead of their own personnel.