The United States federal civil service is the civilian workforce (i.e., non-elected and non-military public sector employees) of the United States federal government's departments and agencies. The federal civil service was established in 1871 (5 U.S.C. § 2101).[1] U.S. state and local government entities often have comparable civil service systems that are modeled on the national system to varying degrees.

The U.S. civil service is managed by the Office of Personnel Management, which as of December 2011 reported approximately 2.79 million civil servants employed by the federal government,[2][3][4] including employees in the departments and agencies run by any of the three branches of government (the executive branch, legislative branch, and judicial branch) and the over 600,000 employees of the U.S. Postal Service.

Types of employees

There are three categories of U.S. federal employees:[5]

Hiring authorities

A hiring authority is the law, executive order, regulation that allows an agency to hire a person into the federal civil service. In fiscal year 2014, there were 105 hiring authorities in use. The following were the top 20 hiring authorities used that year, which accounted for 91% of new appointments:[8]

Description of the 20 hiring authorities most used in fiscal year 2014[8]
Hiring authority Service type Number Description
Competitive examining Competitive 44,612 Vacancies open to the public and posted on USAJobs. Applicants ranked and selections made by category rating. Veterans' preference applies
Department of Veterans Affairs, Title 38 Excepted 30,240 Exclusively for Veterans Affairs to hire certain medical occupations.
Schedule A: Agency-specific Authority Excepted 11,220 Allows agencies to meet a hiring need that has not been remedied by using competitive examining, with justification and OPM approval.
Defense National Guard technician Excepted 11,143 Unique non-Title 5 hiring authority used strictly for appointment of National Guard technicians. Appointees maintain a dual status as both a federal employee and state national guard member.
Veterans Employment Opportunities Act Competitive 11,011 Allows eligible veterans to apply for positions announced under merit promotion procedures when an agency accepts applications from outside its own workforce.
Other law, executive order, or regulation Both 10,745 Authorities granted by law, executive order, or regulation for which no specific OPM-designated hiring authority code exists.
Pathways internship Excepted 8,862 Targets students at qualifying educational institutions. Interns eligible to be noncompetitively converted to competitive service under specified conditions.
Temporary appointment, based on prior temporary federal service Competitive 8,344 Allows agencies to noncompetitively reappoint former temporary employees (who have not already served the maximum time allowed) and noncompetitively appoint others eligible for certain career conditional appointments.
Veterans recruitment appointment Excepted 7,733 Allows agencies to appoint eligible veterans up to the GS-11 or equivalent level without regard to competitive examining procedures. Appointees are converted to competitive service appointments after 2 years of satisfactory service.
Alternative Personnel System, Department of Agriculture Competitive 6,630 Provides hiring flexibility exclusively to the Forest Service and the Agricultural Research Service.
Transportation Security Administration Excepted 4,540 Provides hiring flexibility exclusively to the Transportation Security Administration.
Government-wide direct hire authority Competitive 4,449 Allows agencies to fill positions OPM has determined have a severe candidate shortage or a critical hiring need. Public notice is required but not the application of veterans' preference or applicant rating and ranking.
Reinstatement Competitive 3,624 Allows former eligible federal employees to reenter the competitive service without competing with the public.
Pathways Recent Graduates Excepted 2,845 Targets individuals who have recently received a degree or certificate from a qualifying institution. After completion, eligible for non-competitive conversions to competitive service under specified conditions.
Federal Aviation Administration Excepted 2,676 Provides hiring flexibility exclusively to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Schedule A: severe physical disabilities Excepted 2,204 Allows agencies to appoint persons with severe physical disabilities. Allows for non-competitive conversion to competitive service after 2 years of satisfactory service.
Department of Defense expedited hiring authority Competitive 2,080 Allows DOD to hire qualified candidates for certain acquisition and health care occupations using direct-hire procedures where DOD has determined a shortage of candidates or critical hiring needs.
Demonstration Project, Defense Lab Both 2,032 Allows DOD to hire science and technology personnel at Research Labs with modification or waiver of some Title 5 provisions.
Schedule A: Temporary, less-than-full time positions, critical need Excepted 1,688 Allows managers to meet a short-term critical hiring need to fulfill the mission of an agency for up to 30-days with one 30-day extension.
Schedule A, attorneys Excepted 1,627 Enables agencies to hire attorneys because OPM cannot develop qualification standards or examine for attorney positions by law.

Pay systems

Main articles: General Schedule, Federal Wage System, and Senior Executive Service

The pay system of the United States government civil service has evolved into a complex set of pay systems that include principally the General Schedule (GS) for white-collar employees, Federal Wage System (FWS) for blue-collar employees, Senior Executive System (SES) for Executive-level employees, Foreign Service Schedule (FS) for members of the Foreign Service and more than twelve alternate pay systems that are referred to as alternate or experimental pay systems such as the first experimental system China Lake Demonstration Project. The current system began as the Classification Act of 1923[9] and was refined into law with the Classification Act of 1949. These acts that provide the foundation of the current system have been amended through executive orders and through published amendments in the Federal Register that sets for approved changes in the regulatory structure of the federal pay system. The common goal among all pay systems is to provide equitable salaries to all involved workers regardless of system, group or classification. This is referred to as pay equity or "equal pay for equal work". Select careers in high demand may be subject to a special rate table,[10] which can pay above the standard GS tables. These careers include certain engineering disciplines and patent examiners.[11][12]

The General Schedule (GS) includes white collar workers at levels 1 through 15, most professional, technical, administrative, and clerical positions in the federal civil service. The Federal Wage System or Wage Grade (WG) schedule includes most federal blue-collar workers. As of September 2004, 71% of federal civilian employees were paid under the GS; the remaining 29% were paid under other systems such as the Federal Wage System for federal blue-collar civilian employees, the Senior Executive Service and the Executive Schedule for high-ranking federal employees, and the pay schedules for the United States Postal Service and the Foreign Service. In addition, some federal agencies—such as the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve System, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—have their own unique pay schedules.

All federal employees in the GS system receive a base pay that is adjusted for locality. Locality pay varies, but is at least 15.95% of base salary in all parts of the United States. The following salary ranges represent the lowest and highest possible amounts a person can earn in base salary, without earning overtime pay or receiving a merit-based bonus. Actual salary ranges differ adjusted for increased locality pay. As of March 2022, however, all base salaries lie within the parameters of the following ranges:

Pay grade GS-1 GS-2 GS-3 GS-4 GS-5 GS-6 GS-7 GS-8 GS-9 GS-10 GS-11 GS-12 GS-13 GS-14 GS-15
Lowest step (1) $21,986 $24,722 $26,975 $30,280 $33,878 $37,765 $41,966 $46,475 $51,332 $56,528 $62,107 $74,441 $88,520 $104,604 $123,041
Highest step (10) $27,502 $31,114 $35,066 $39,361 $44,039 $49,096 $54,557 $60,416 $66,731 $73,484 $80,737 $96,770 $115,079 $135,987 $159,950

Nineteen percent of federal employees earned salaries of $100,000 or more in 2009. The average federal worker's pay was $71,208 compared with $40,331 in the private sector, although under Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76, most menial or lower paying jobs have been outsourced to private contractors.[13] In 2010, there were 82,034 workers, 3.9% of the federal workforce, making more than $150,000 annually, compared to 7,240 in 2005.[14] GS salaries are capped by law so that they do not exceed the salary for Executive Schedule IV positions.[15] The increase in civil servants making more than $150,000 resulted mainly from an increase in Executive Schedule salary approved during the Administration of George W. Bush, which raised the salary cap for senior GS employees slightly above the $150,000 threshold.[16]

Federal agencies

Main article: List of United States federal agencies

Civil service employees work in one of the 15 executive departments or one of the independent agencies. In addition, a number of staff organizations are grouped into the Executive Office of the President, including the White House staff, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Independent agencies include the United States Postal Service (USPS), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In addition, there are government-owned corporations such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (NRPC).[17]

As of March 2022, there are 392 federal agencies including 9 executive offices, 15 executive departments, 259 executive department sub-agencies and bureaus, 66 independent agencies, 42 boards, commissions, and committees, 11 quasi-official agencies.[18]

Employment by agency

Federal Government executive branch civilian employment,
except U.S. Postal Service, fiscal year 2016[19]
(Employment in thousands)
Worldwide D.C.
Combined Total 2,096 173
Executive departments 1,923 132
Defense, total 738 16.5
Army 251 2
Navy 207 12
Air Force 169 0.5
Other defense 80 2
Veterans Affairs 373 8
Homeland Security 192 24
Treasury 92 9
Justice 117
Agriculture 97 7
Interior 71 4
Health/Human Services (HHS) 87 4
Transportation 55 8
Commerce 46 3
Labor 16 5
Energy 15 5
State 13 10
Housing/Urban Dev (HUD) 8 3
Education 4 3
Selected independent agencies 173 41
Social Security Administration 64 0.2
NASA 17 1
Environmental Protection Agency 16 4
Securities and Exchange Commission 5 3
General Services Administration 12 4
Small Business Administration 4 0.8
Office of Personnel Management 5 2

As of January 2009, about 2 million civilian workers were employed by the federal government; excluding, the postal service and defense.

The federal government is the nation's single largest employer. Although most federal agencies are based in the Washington, D.C. region, only about 16% (or about 288,000) of the federal government workforce is employed in this region.[20]


Main article: U.S. Civil Service Reform

The federal service employed approximately 300 individuals by 1789. By the end of the 19th century, it had reached 208,000. As a consequence of the First World War, this number rose to 900,000. Between the wars, the workforce experienced fluctuations between 500 and 600,000. The one million mark was surpassed in the early 1940s, with a record 3.3 million people recorded as part of the federal civil service by 1945. This figure then receded to 2.1 million by October 1946.[21]

In the early 19th century, positions in the federal government were held at the pleasure of the president—a person could be fired at any time. The spoils system meant that jobs were used to support the American political parties, though this was gradually changed by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 and subsequent laws. By 1909, almost two-thirds of the U.S. federal workforce was appointed based on merit, that is, qualifications measured by tests. Certain senior civil service positions, including some heads of diplomatic missions and executive agencies, are filled by political appointees. Under the Hatch Act of 1939, civil servants are not allowed to engage in political activities while performing their duties.[22] In some cases, an outgoing administration will give its political appointees positions with civil service protection in order to prevent them from being fired by the new administration; this is called "burrowing" in civil service jargon.[23]

U.S. Civil Service Commission

Public support in the United States for civil service reform strengthened following the assassination of President James Garfield.[24] The United States Civil Service Commission was created by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which was passed into law on January 16, 1883. The commission was created to administer the civil service of the United States federal government. The law required federal government employees to be selected through competitive exams and basis of merit.[24] It also prevented elected officials and political appointees from firing civil servants, removing civil servants from the influences of political patronage and partisan behavior.[24][25] However, the law did not apply to state and municipal governments.

Effective January 1, 1978, the commission was renamed the Office of Personnel Management under the provisions of Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1978 (43 F.R. 36037, 92 Stat. 3783) and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

Civil Service Reform Act of 1978

Main article: Civil Service Reform Act of 1978

This act abolished the United States Civil Service Commission and created the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) and the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). OPM primarily provides management guidance to the various agencies of the executive branch and issues regulations that control federal human resources. FLRA oversees the rights of federal employees to form collective bargaining units (unions) and to engage in collective bargaining with agencies. MSPB conducts studies of the federal civil service and mainly hears the appeals of federal employees who are disciplined or otherwise separated from their positions. This act was an effort to replace incompetent officials.[26][27]

Attempted reforms under the Trump administration

In May 2018, President Donald Trump signed three executive orders intended to crack down on unions that represent federal employees and to make it easier to fire federal workers.[28] It was claimed that the changes are designed to strengthen merit-system principles in the civil service and improve efficiency, transparency, and accountability in the federal government.[29][28] However, in August 2018, after reviewing the executive orders in detail, U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson temporarily[30] struck down most of the executive orders, ruling that they were an attempt to weaken federal labor unions representing federal employees.[31] Judge Jackson's ruling was reversed by the DC Circuit on jurisdiction grounds, saying the unions should first have complained to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.[32]

In October 2020, Trump signed an executive order that created a new category of federal employees, Schedule F, which included all career civil servants whose job includes "policymaking". Such employees would no longer be covered by civil service protections against arbitrary dismissal, but would be subject to the same rules as political appointees. The new description could be applied to thousands of nonpartisan experts such as scientists, who give advice to the political appointees who run their departments.[33] Heads of all federal agencies were ordered to report by January 19, 2021, a list of positions that could be reclassified as Schedule F. The Office of Management and Budget submitted a list in November that included 88 percent of the office's workforce.[34] Federal employee organizations and Congressional Democrats sought to overturn the order via lawsuits or bills. House Democrats warned in a letter that "The executive order could precipitate a mass exodus from the federal government at the end of every presidential administration, leaving federal agencies without deep institutional knowledge, expertise, experience, and the ability to develop and implement long-term policy strategies."[35] Observers predicted that Trump could use the new rule to implement a "massive government purge on his way out the door".[36] Schedule F was eliminated by President Joe Biden on 22, January 2021, nullifying the personnel changes.[37]

Civil servants in literature

See also



  1. ^ "The Federal Civil Service". DOI University, National Business Center, U.S. Department of the Interior. 1998. Archived from the original on October 18, 2009. Retrieved August 31, 2009.
  2. ^ "Total Government Employment Since 1962". TemplateLab. Archived from the original on April 1, 2018. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
  3. ^ O'Keefe, Ed (September 30, 2010). "Federal Eye – How many federal workers are there?". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on March 28, 2013. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
  4. ^ "December 2011". January 1, 2012. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
  5. ^ "Help Center: Entering Federal Service". USAJOBS. United States Office of Personnel Management. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
  6. ^ "Federal Hiring Flexibilities Resource Center". Retrieved March 27, 2021.
  7. ^ "Excepted Service Hiring Authorities: Their Use and Effectiveness in the Executive Branch" (PDF). U.S. Office of Personnel Management. July 1, 2018. pp. 1–2, 9, 20. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
  8. ^ a b "Federal Hiring: OPM Needs to Improve Management and Oversight of Hiring Authorities". U. S. Government Accountability Office. September 1, 2016. pp. 0, 9–11.
  9. ^ Pub. Law no. 516, Ch. 265, 42 Stat. 1488 (March 4, 1923).
  10. ^ "U.S. Office of Personnel Management".
  11. ^
  12. ^ "Federal pay and the General Schedule (GS)".
  13. ^ Cauchon, Dennis (December 11, 2009). "Richest of federal workers get richer". Melbourne, Florida: Florida Today. pp. 1A.
  14. ^ Cauchon, Dennis (November 10, 2010). "More fed workers' pay tops $150K". Melbourne, Florida: Florida Today. pp. 4A.
  15. ^ "Congressional Research Service Report for Congress: The Executive Schedule IV Pay Cap on General Schedule Compensation" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on January 19, 2012. Retrieved December 22, 2011.
  16. ^ "January 2009 Pay Adjustments". United States Office of Personnel Management. December 18, 2008. Retrieved December 22, 2011.
  17. ^ "Circular NO. A–11 PT. 7 Planning, Budgeting, Acquisition, and Management of Capital Assets" (PDF). Office of Management and Budget. June 2008. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 4, 2011. Retrieved July 28, 2008 – via National Archives.
  18. ^ "Branches of the U.S. Government | USAGov". Retrieved March 29, 2022.
  19. ^ "FedScope Federal Human Resources Data". U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Retrieved February 7, 2017.
  20. ^ "Federal Government, Excluding the Postal Service". US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. March 12, 2008. Archived from the original on January 14, 2009. Retrieved July 28, 2008., Section: Employment. Note: Because data on employment in certain agencies cannot be released to the public for national security reasons, this total does not include employment for the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and National Imagery and Mapping Agency.
  21. ^ Essentials 1947, p. 307.
  22. ^ "Political Activity (Hatch Act)". Archived from the original on May 20, 2011. Retrieved May 25, 2011.
  23. ^ Eilperin, Juliet (November 18, 2008). "Administration Moves to Protect Key Appointees". Washington Post.
  24. ^ a b c Digital History, Steven Mintz. "Digital History". Archived from the original on October 1, 2011. Retrieved May 25, 2011.
  25. ^ Creating America: A History of the United States, Rand McNally, p. 238 (2003).
  26. ^ Ingraham, Patricia W.; Donald Moynihan (2000). The Future of Merit. p. 103.
  27. ^ Roberge, Ellen (2011). SNAFU, A Hysterical Memoir About Why the Government Doesn't Work. Orlando, FL: Createspace/BureauRat Publishing. p. 119. ISBN 978-0615610290.
  28. ^ a b Korte, Gregory. "Trump signs executive orders aimed at loosening clout of federal labor unions". USA TODAY. Retrieved December 3, 2018.
  29. ^ Eaton, Sabrina. "President Trump signs three executive orders in attempted crackdown on federal unions". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved December 3, 2018.
  30. ^ "D.C. Circuit reverses district court ruling that blocked Trump's civil service executive orders – Ballotpedia News".
  31. ^ Korte, Gregory. "Judge rules against Trump's attempt to weaken federal unions". USA TODAY. Retrieved December 3, 2018.
  32. ^ Court Delivers Blow to Federal Unions Fighting Trump's Workforce Orders
  33. ^ Feinberg, Andrew (October 30, 2020). "Trump just quietly passed an executive order that could destroy a future Biden administration". The Independent. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
  34. ^ Wegmann, Philip (November 21, 2020). "OMB Lists Positions Stripped of Job Protection Under Trump Order ". Real Clear Politics. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
  35. ^ Ogrysko, Nicole (November 24, 2020). "Congress, employee groups ramp up pressure to block Schedule F executive order". Federal News Network. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
  36. ^ Rampell, Catherine (November 30, 2020). "Trump lays the groundwork for a massive government purge on his way out the door". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
  37. ^ "UPDATED: Biden repeals Schedule F, overturns Trump workforce policies with new executive order". Federal News Network. January 22, 2021. Retrieved March 27, 2021.
  38. ^ "The Press: Soap Operas Come to Print". Time. August 8, 1977. Archived from the original on December 15, 2008. Retrieved February 27, 2010.
  39. ^ "The Rules of the Game". The New York Times. March 5, 1911. Retrieved March 19, 2018.

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