Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.
Governments are critical components of our societal infrastructure. Effective governments are needed to deliver the services, supports, and public amenities that Americans want and need. As I noted in my last post, an important reason that massive unemployment insurance fraud occurred during the pandemic was that government infrastructure wasn’t up to the task of effectively administering expanded benefits. State computer systems and personnel didn’t have the capacity to accurately enroll and pay the wave of new beneficiaries. And law enforcement lacked the capacity to identify and punish fraudulent applicants.
For 40 years, small government advocates – mostly Republicans but with the acquiescence or assistance of many Democrats – have successfully pushed to shrink government infrastructure and capacity. President Reagan (a Republican) asserted in 1980 that government was the problem and not the solution – a claim that went unanswered by Democrats. This marked the beginning of a concerted effort by Republicans to downsize the federal government – except for the Defense Department – in terms of number of personnel, regulatory capacity and responsibility, provision of a safety net, emergency response and public health capacity, scientific and policy analysis expertise and data, etc. President Clinton (a Democrat) in 1992 declared the end of the era of big government and of welfare as we’d known it – supporting and furthering the weakening of government infrastructure.
One component of this attack on government infrastructure has targeted public employees, both to reduce their numbers and to denigrate them. One reason for this has been to discredit government by claiming that its employees are inefficient, incompetent, and overpaid. Another reason has been to undermine unions, which today are strongest in the public sector given the very successful efforts by corporatists and oligarchs to undermine private sector unions. (The percentage of private sector workers represented by a union has fallen to 20% of what it was 60 years ago – from over 30% to under 7%.)
Federal civilian employment is a little over 2 million, roughly the same as it was in 1966, despite a quintupling of federal spending and a population that has grown by 68%. The government has added agencies in that time such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Energy. In these new agencies and others, the government’s roles and responsibilities have grown and have also become much more complex. Nonetheless, the number of federal employees has not grown to meet these needs. Moreover, under the Trump administration, employment at the Department of Labor declined 11%, 9% at the State Department, and 8% at the Education Department, although their workloads were not declining. Scientists were a particular target of the Trump administration. For example, the Agriculture Department had 50% of its research jobs vacant under Trump. 
To maintain the services that Americans want and the functions government must perform (such as tax collection) with a limited number of federal employees has required a dramatic increase in the number of consultants and contractors working for the government. This has become big business for many companies including some of the well-known consulting companies such as McKinsey and Booz Allen. Booz Allen now gets 96% of its revenue from federal government contracts.
There are now over twice as many private contractors working for the federal government as there are employees. The Government Accountability Office has warned for years that the extensive use of contractors was eroding the government’s ability to govern, including the making of important policy decisions. President Obama worked diligently to reduce the number of contractors, having noted that they are “often unaccountable and often less efficient than government workers.” His administration succeeded in reducing the ratio of contractors to employees from 3.38 to 2.34. Trump reversed this trend and the contractor workforce grew by about 1.4 million people in his four years as President.
A 2010 study by the Project on Government Oversight examined 35 government job categories and found that for 33 of them government employees were less expensive than private contractors even when federal fringe benefits were included. For one job category, contractors were almost five times more expensive.
As a result of the weakening of the federal government’s infrastructure and the extensive use of privatization and contractors, the rate of highly visible failures of government services as risen from 1.6 per year in the 1980s to 4.3 during the Trump administration.
My next post will more closely examine the privatization of government functions and its effects.
Note: In addition to personnel, computer systems are another essential component of government infrastructure. Many government computer systems, at the federal and state levels, are out-of-date, if not antiquated, due to a lack of investment over the last 40 years. As a result, many government computer systems can barely perform essential functions, are difficult to update, and are unable to share data with other systems. This is a story for another day and another post or two.
 Kettl, D. F., & Glastris, P., 7/1/21, “Memo to AOC: Only you can save the government,” Washington Monthly (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2021/memo-to-aoc-only-you-can-fix-the-federal-government/) This blog post is primarily a summary of this article.