United States federal civil service

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Remarks by FDR in 1944 at Union Station, thanking government workers for helping win the war Informal Remarks At Union Station Plaza, Washington, D.C - NARA - 198093.tif
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.

In general, a civilian is "a person who is not a member of the military or of a police or firefighting force". The definition distinguishes from persons whose duties involves risking their lives to protect the public at large from hazardous situations such as terrorism, riots, conflagrations, or wars. "Criminals" are also excluded from the category.

The public sector is the part of the economy composed of both public services and public enterprises.

Title 5 of the United States Code outlines the role of government organization and employees in the United States Code. It also is the Title that specifies Federal holidays.


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.

Types of employees

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

The competitive service is a part of the United States federal government civil service. Applicants for jobs in the competitive civil service must compete with other applicants in open competition under the merit system administered by the Office of Personnel Management, unlike applicants in the excepted service and Senior Executive Service. There are several hiring authorities for the competitive service, including "traditional" competitive examining, as well as expedited procedures such as Direct Hire Authority and the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act.

According to the United States Office of Government Ethics, a political appointee is "any employee who is appointed by the President, the Vice President, or agency head". As of 2016, there are around 4,000 political appointment positions which an incoming administration needs to review, and fill or confirm, of which about 1,200 require Senate confirmation.

The excepted service is the part of the United States federal civil service that is not part of either the competitive service or the Senior Executive Service. It provides streamlined hiring processes to be used under certain circumstances.

Hiring authorities

A hiring authority is the law, executive order, or 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: [6]

Description of the 20 Hiring Authorities Most Used in Fiscal Year 2014 [6]
Hiring AuthorityService typeNumberDescription
Competitive ExaminingCompetitive44,612Vacancies open to the public and posted on USAJobs. Applicants ranked and selections made by category rating. Veterans’ preference applies
Department of Veterans Affairs, Title 38Excepted30,240Exclusively for Veterans Affairs to hire certain medical occupations.
Schedule A: Agency-specific AuthorityExcepted11,220Allows agencies to meet a hiring need that has not been remedied by using competitive examining, with justification and OPM approval.
Defense National Guard TechnicianExcepted11,143Unique 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 ActCompetitive11,011Allows 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 regulationBoth10,745Authorities granted by law, executive order, or regulation for which no specific OPM-designated hiring authority code exists.
Pathways InternshipExcepted8,862Targets students at qualifying educational institutions. Interns eligible to be noncompetitively converted to competitive service under specified conditions.
Temporary Appointment, based on prior temporary federal serviceCompetitive8,344Allows 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 AppointmentExcepted7,733Allows 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 AgricultureCompetitive6,630Provides hiring flexibility exclusively to the Forest Service and the Agricultural Research Service.
Transportation Security AdministrationExcepted4,540Provides hiring flexibility exclusively to the Transportation Security Administration.
Government-wide Direct Hire AuthorityCompetitive4,449Allows 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.
ReinstatementCompetitive3,624Allows former eligible federal employees to reenter the competitive service without competing with the public.
Pathways Recent GraduatesExcepted2,845Targets 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 AdministrationExcepted2,676Provides hiring flexibility exclusively to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Schedule A: Severe Physical DisabilitiesExcepted2,204Allows agencies to appoint persons with severe physicaldisabilities. Allows for non-competitive conversion to competitive service after 2 years of satisfactory service.
Department of Defense Expedited Hiring AuthorityCompetitive2,080Allows 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 LabBoth2,032Allows 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 needExcepted1,688Allows 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, AttorneysExcepted1,627Enables agencies to hire attorneys because OPM cannot develop qualification standards or examine for attorney positions by law.

Pay systems

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 [7] 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, [8] which can pay above the standard GS tables. These careers include certain engineering disciplines and patent examiners. [9] [10]

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 [11] versus $61,084 [12] in San Jose, California), but all base salaries lie within the parameters of the following ranges (effective January, 2018): [13]

Pay gradeGS-1GS-2GS-3GS-4GS-5GS-6GS-7GS-8GS-9GS-10GS-11GS-12GS-13GS-14GS-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. [14]

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. [15] 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. [16] GS salaries are capped by law so that they do not exceed the salary for Executive Schedule IV positions. [17] 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. [18]

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.

Federal agencies

Employees in the civil services work under one of the independent agencies or one of the 15 executive departments.

In addition to departments, there are a number of staff organizations grouped into the Executive Office of the President. These include 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.

There are also independent agencies such as the United States Postal Service, 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. [19]

There were 456 federal agencies in 2009. [20]

Employment by agency

Federal Government executive branch civilian employment,
except U.S. Postal Service, fiscal year 2016 [21]
(Employment in thousands)
Worldwide D.C.
Combined Total2,096173
Executive departments1,923132
Defense, total73816.5
Army 2512
Navy 20712
Air Force 1690.5
Other defense802
Veterans Affairs 3738
Homeland Security 19224
Treasury 929
Justice 117
Agriculture 977
Interior 714
Health/Human Services (HHS) 874
Transportation 558
Commerce 463
Labor 165
Energy 155
State 1310
Housing/Urban Dev (HUD) 83
Education 43
Selected independent agencies17341
Social Security Administration 640.2
NASA 171
Environmental Protection Agency 164
Securities and Exchange Commission 53
General Services Administration 124
Small Business Administration 40.8
Office of Personnel Management 52

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]


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. [23] 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. [24]

U.S. Civil Service Commission

Public support in the United States for civil service reform strengthened following the assassination of President James Garfield. [25] 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; [25] it also prevented elected officials and political appointees from firing civil servants, removing civil servants from the influences of political patronage and partisan behavior. [25] [26] 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. [27]

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. [28] [29]

Attempted Reforms under the Trump administration

President Donald Trump signed three executive orders designed to enforce merit-system principles in the civil service and claimed it was intended to improve efficiency, transparency, and accountability in the federal government. [30] [31] However, after reviewing the executive orders in detail, U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson struck down a majority of Trump's executive orders, ruling that his executive orders were an attempt to weaken federal labor unions representing federal employees. [32]

Civil servants in literature

See also

Related Research Articles

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