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United States federal civil service

Remarks by FDR in 1944 at Union Station, thanking government workers for helping win the war

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, in varying degrees.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, as of December 2011, there were approximately 2.79 million civil servants employed by the U.S. government.[2][3][4] This includes employees in the departments and agencies run by any of the three branches of government (the executive branch, legislative branch, and judicial branch), such as over 600,000 employees in the U.S. Postal Service.


Career employees and political appointeesEdit

The majority of civil service positions are classified as competitive service, meaning employees are selected based on merit after a competitive hiring process for positions that are open to all applicants. The Senior Executive Service (SES) is the classification for non-competitive, senior leadership positions filled by career employees or political appointments (e.g., Cabinet members, ambassadors, etc.). Excepted service positions (also known as unclassified service) are non-competitive jobs in certain federal agencies with security and intelligence functions (e.g., the CIA, FBI, State Department, etc.) that are authorized to create their own hiring policies and are not subject to most appointment, pay, and classification laws.[5]


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.[6] 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.[7]

Federal agenciesEdit

Pay systemsEdit

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[10] 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 achieve the goal of paying 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,[11] which can pay above the standard GS tables. These careers include certain engineering disciplines and patent examiners.[12][13]

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/Senior Level 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 10% 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 over-time pay or receiving a merit-based bonus. Actual salary ranges differ adjusted for increased locality pay (for instance a GS-9, step 1 in rural Arkansas may start at $50,598[14] versus $61,084[15] in San Jose, California), but all base salaries lie within the parameters of the following ranges (effective January, 2018):[16]

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) $ 18,785 $ 21,121 $ 23,045 $ 25,871 $ 28,945 $ 32,264 $ 35,854 $ 39,707 $ 43,857 $ 48,297 $ 53,062 $ 63,600 $ 75,628 $ 89,370 $ 105,123
Highest step (10) $ 23,502 $ 26,585 $ 29,957 $ 33,629 $ 37,630 $ 41,939 $ 46,609 $ 51,623 $ 57,015 $ 62,787 $ 68,983 $ 78,355 $ 98,317 $116,181 $136,659
Source: U.S. Office of Personnel Management, 2018.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] GS salaries are capped by law so that they do not exceed the salary for Executive Schedule IV positions.[20] 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.[21]

Basic pay rates for Senior Executive Service (i.e. non-Presidentially appointed civil servants above GS-15) will range from $119,554 to $179,700 in 2012.

Employment by agencyEdit

As of January 2009, the Federal Government, excluding the Postal Service and soldiers, employed about 2 million civilian workers.

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.[22]

Federal Government executive branch civilian employment,
except U.S. Postal Service, fiscal year 2016[23]
(Employment in thousands)
Worldwide Washington, D.C. Worldwide Washington, D.C.
Combined Total 2,096 173
Executive departments 1,923 132 Independent agencies 173 41
Defense, total 738 16.5 Social Security Administration 64 0.2
Army 251 2 NASA 17 1
Navy 207 12 Environmental Protection Agency 16 4
Air Force 169 0.5 Securities and Exchange Commission 5 3
Other defense 80 2 General Services Administration 12 4
Veterans Affairs 373 8 Small Business Administration 4 0.8
Homeland Security 192 24 Office of Personnel Management 5 2
Treasury 92 9
Justice 117
Agriculture 97 7 Executive departments (cont.)
Interior 71 4
Health/Human Services (HHS) 87 4 Energy 15 5
Transportation 55 8 State 13 10
Commerce 46 3 Housing/Urban Dev (HUD) 8 3
Labor 16 5 Education 4 3
SOURCE: U.S. Office of Personnel Management

U.S. Civil Service CommissionEdit

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.

The United States Civil service exams have since been abolished for many positions, since statistics show that they do not accurately allow hiring of minorities according to the affirmative action guidelines.[26]

Civil Service Reform Act of 1978Edit

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.[27][28]

Reforms under the Trump administrationEdit

President Donald Trump signed three executive orders designed to enforce merit-system principles in the civil service and intended to improve efficiency, transparency, and accountability in the federal government. [29] [30] U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson struck down the majority of Trump's executive orders, ruling they were a violation of federal law. [31]

Civil servants in literatureEdit

  • Mumms, Hardee (1977). Federal Triangle. New York: Dutton. ISBN 978-0-525-10425-4. Humorous novel of 1970s federal employees in Washington, DC [32]
  • Philipson, Morris H (1983). Secret understandings: A novel. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-46619-0. Novel about the wife of a federal judge
  • Bromell, Henry (2001). Little America: A Novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-525-10425-4. A State Department employee's son reconstructs a childhood in a fictional Middle Eastern country
  • Costello, Mark (2002). Big If. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-05116-2. A novel of life in the Secret Service
  • Keeley, Edmund (1985). A Wilderness Called Peace. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-47416-4. A novel of a diplomat's son in Cambodia
  • Bushell, Agnes (1997). The enumerator. London: Serpent's Tail. ISBN 978-1-85242-554-8. A novel about a public health contractor in San Francisco
  • White, Stewart Edward (1910). The Rules of the Game. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-1-4432-2300-3. A novel of the Forest Service[33]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "The Federal Civil Service". DOI University, National Business Center, U.S. Department of the Interior (Revised 11/10/98). Archived from the original on 2009-10-18. Retrieved 2009-08-31.
  2. ^ "Total Government Employment Since 1962". Retrieved 2013-02-05.
  3. ^ O'Keefe, Ed. "Federal Eye – How many federal workers are there?". Retrieved 2013-02-05.
  4. ^ "December 2011". 2012-01-01. Retrieved 2013-02-05.
  5. ^ "Help Center: Entering Federal Service". USAJOBS. United States Office of Personnel Management. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
  6. ^ "Political Activity (Hatch Act)". Archived from the original on 2011-05-20. Retrieved 2011-05-25.
  7. ^ Eilperin, Juliet (November 18, 2008). "Administration Moves to Protect Key Appointees". Washington Post.
  8. ^ "Circular NO. A–11 PT. 7 Planning, Budgeting, Acquisition, and Management of Capital Assets" (PDF). OMB Circular No. A–11 (2008). Executive Office of the President Office of Management and Budget. June 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-07-26. Retrieved 2008-07-28.
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-10-14. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
  10. ^ Pub. Law no. 516, Ch. 265, 42 Stat. 1488 (March 4, 1923).
  11. ^ "U.S. Office of Personnel Management".
  12. ^
  13. ^ "Federal pay and the General Schedule (GS)".
  14. ^ "OPM SALARY TABLE FOR THE REST OF U.S." (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-01-20. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  15. ^ "OPM SALARY TABLE FOR THE LOCALITY PAY AREA OF SAN JOSE" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-01-20. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  16. ^ "Office of Personnel Management, Salary Tables, 2018" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-01-20. Retrieved 2018-01-19.
  17. ^ "2018 General Schedule (GS) Locality Pay Tables". Office of Personnel Management. 2012. Archived from the original on 2018-01-09. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
  18. ^ Cauchon, Dennis (11 December 2009). "Richest of federal workers get richer". Melbourne, Florida: Florida Today. pp. 1A.
  19. ^ Cauchon, Dennis (10 November 2010). "More fed workers' pay tops $150K". Melbourne, Florida: Florida Today. pp. 4A.
  20. ^ "Congressional Research Service Report for Congress: The Executive Schedule IV Pay Cap on General Schedule Compensation" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-01-19. Retrieved 2011-12-22.
  21. ^ "January 2009 Pay Adjustments". United States Office of Personnel Management. 18 December 2008. Retrieved 2011-12-22.
  22. ^ "Federal Government, Excluding the Postal Service". US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2008-03-12. Archived from the original on 2009-01-14. Retrieved 2008-07-28., 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.
  23. ^ "FedScope Federal Human Resources Data". U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Retrieved 2017-02-07.
  24. ^ a b c Digital History, Steven Mintz. "Digital History". Archived from the original on 2011-10-01. Retrieved 2011-05-25.
  25. ^ Creating America: A History of the United States, Rand McNally, p. 238 (2003).
  26. ^ E. Chemerinsky, "Making Sense of the Affirmative Action Debate", (1996)
  27. ^ Ingraham, Patricia W.; Donald P. Moynihan (2000). The Future of Merit. p. 103.
  28. ^ Roberge, Ellen (2011). SNAFU, A Hysterical Memoir About Why the Government Doesn't Work. Orlando, FL: Createspace/BureauRat Publishing. p. 119. ISBN 978-0615610290.
  29. ^ Eaton, Sabrina. "President Trump signs three executive orders in attempted crackdown on federal unions". The Plain Dealer. Retrieved 3 December 2018.
  30. ^ Korte, Gregory. "Trump signs executive orders aimed at loosening clout of federal labor unions". USA TODAY. Retrieved 3 December 2018.
  31. ^ Korte, Gregory. "Judge rules against Trump's attempt to weaken federal unions". USA TODAY. Retrieved 3 December 2018.
  32. ^ "The Press: Soap Operas Come to Print". TIME. August 8, 1977. Retrieved February 27, 2010.
  33. ^ "The Rules of the Game". 5 March 1911. Retrieved 19 March 2018 – via

External linksEdit