What Government Does

Hint: It mostly doesn't happen inside the Beltway.
by | July 23, 2008

Way back in the early 1980s, I took an introductory course in policy analysis from Tom Schelling. We all learned something precious from almost every Schelling lecture. When he received a Nobel Prize in 2005, it just confirmed the obvious to those who've known him -- and I could base a year's worth of columns on the sayings of Schelling. Here's one of my favorites: "Always start by asking 'Which are the big numbers, and which are the small numbers?' "

This Schellingism is on my mind these days because so many people get it wrong when it comes to my current obsession, government employment. The dominant mental model of a "government worker" is wildly unrepresentative. Observe a television commentator, an academic seminar or even a class of Harvard public-management students (who ought to know better), and it's clear that the implicit archetype of government employment is a white-collar civil servant working within a stone's throw of the Washington Monument.

This describes less than 1 percent of the public workforce. For starters, the vast majority of federal employees work outside Washington. But even the full roster of federal civil servants comes to fewer than two million people. There are more Americans in prison than in the federal civil service. (And, no, as somebody always asks when I make this comparison, it's not adjusted for double-counting.) This is not to say that federal work -- regulating, exploring space, tending to defense, spying and catching spies, and all the rest -- is unimportant. It is just that these activities represent a relatively small piece of what government does. The federal level accounts for less than 15 percent of civilian public employment. Throw in the uniformed military, and it still barely breaks 20 percent.

Let's follow Schelling's lead and look for the big numbers of government work. The Census Bureau -- part of that unrepresentative but still important federal sector -- publishes solid estimates of employment by function. The freshest data counts just shy of 19 million civilian government workers in March 2006. (The Defense Department separately tracks the uniformed military, which accounted for another 1.4 million that month.)

Over 16 million of those civilian employees -- more than 17 out of every 20 -- worked at the state or local level. About 10 percent of these people were occupied with preventing or punishing crime. We have more people protecting us from bad guys at home than from bad guys abroad: The 1.6 million state and local police and prison workers outnumber the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines combined.

State and local hospital employees and public health workers account for about 1.4 million people -- another big number to weigh when examining what government does. Highways and public welfare each claim over half a million state and local workers.

However, the biggest numbers, by far, are in education. Elementary and high school teachers alone total 4.6 million. Add in teachers' aides, cafeteria workers, librarians, superintendents and other people who keep the schools operating, and the K-12 workforce approaches 7 million. Folding in higher-education workers -- mostly faculty and staff at state colleges and universities -- and a few odds and ends of state and local education, and the tally climbs to over 8.6 million. Roughly half of all the government employees in the United States do state or local education work. Teachers and their colleagues outnumber the uniformed military by more than six to one.

Size isn't everything, though. There are only seven Federal Reserve governors, for example, but their work matters a lot. Government does a lot; even the missions that claim a minuscule fraction of the public workforce tend to be important, and it's worth thinking hard about how to get them done well. The big things government does, though, are clear -- and strikingly at odds with the ways even sophisticated people tend to think about "the government." Government protects, heals, and above all educates, mostly far from Washington.


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