President Trump on Monday signed an executive order instituting a hiring freeze on all nonmilitary federal employees. At a press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the move “counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years.”
In both raw-number and percentage terms, this is an inaccurate statement. According to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.8 million employees on the federal payroll as of December. The number has risen slightly since May 2014, when there were roughly 2.7 million federal employees (part of the reason may be an accelerated pace of hiring in anticipation of a new presidential administration). That represents an increase of about 3 percent.
By contrast, the total civilian workforce, excluding federal employees, grew by about 4.9 percent over the same period.
In raw-number terms, the number of federal employees is nearly the same today (2.8 million) as it was when Barack Obama took office (2.79 million). It is also similar to the number of federal employees at the end of the Clinton administration (2.75 million) and lower than at any time during the Reagan administration (when it peaked at 3.15 million).
But as a share of the total civilian workforce, in percentage terms, the federal workforce is smaller than it's been in nearly 70 years.
During World War II, federal workers made up more than 7 percent of the U.S. workforce. But that share has been shrinking steadily since then. Today, less than 2 percent of American workers are employed by the federal government.
Part of that decrease has been offset by gains in state and local government employment. As the number of federal employees has remained relatively flat in recent decades, the number of state and local government workers has ballooned.
One factor allowing the federal workforce to remain steady while the population grows is increased outsourcing of public work to private contractors. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that federal contract spending has been outpacing inflation and growing as a share of total federal spending since 2000.
The hiring freeze was a campaign promise outlined in Trump's “Contract With the American Voter,” which listed a number of proposals to “clean up the corruption and special interest collusion in Washington, D.C.” The freeze, it says, is intended to “reduce the federal workforce through attrition.”
There's considerable doubt about the efficacy of hiring freezes as a federal management tool. A 1982 Government Accountability Office report found that “governmentwide hiring freezes, regardless of how well they are managed, are not an effective means of controlling federal employment.” The report found that hiring freezes up until that point had “disrupted agency operations and, in some cases, increased costs to the government.”
Jeffrey Neal, a former personnel chief for the Department of Homeland Security and now a senior vice president for ICF International, said in an interview that “the main benefit of a hiring freeze to a new administration is that it gives them a chance to freeze things in place and get their own people in place. As far as saving money, hiring freezes are not big dollar savers.”
Neal says a hiring freeze would probably not have a significant effect on the size of the federal workforce unless it was put in place in conjunction with early-retirement or severance incentives. “But if you're not careful, you can end up with a skills imbalance that can be a problem,” he added.
If employees in critical positions end up leaving the federal workforce during a hiring freeze, their agencies might not be able to refill those positions unless the freeze has provisions for filling important jobs, according to Neal.
At the time of this writing, the Trump administration has not released the details of the hiring freeze. At the White House press briefing, Spicer said the freeze prohibits agencies from filling vacant positions and from creating new ones.