Counting Government Workers Tells Little About the Quality of Government

Cost and quality should be the primary concern

Governing Magazine recently used data from the Census Bureau to show that Michigan has the lowest per-capita public employment. MIRS News spoke with some public unions that said this is a travesty.

But it is not an indicator of much — neither cost, or quality, or even the government's importance to residents.

Consider the largest service provided by state and local government — elementary and secondary schooling. There are 168 school employees for every 10,000 Michigan residents, putting the state at the low end of public employment for this function. The national average was 208 employees per 10,000 residents.

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Michigan has a few quirks that depress these numbers, though. It is a leader among the states in offering education through charter schools, which are public schools that are largely staffed by private employees. The best evidence we have on Michigan charters shows that, on average, they add extra value to student learning.

Our school districts also contract out more support services than districts in other states. The vast majority of districts report being satisfied with their contractors, and if they are not, they can switch, or perform the service themselves.

In addition to those complicating factors, just counting how many people get a government paycheck also says little about the actual costs of government services. State employment has been declining for decades, for instance, yet the costs of the state’s employees keep increasing. The state's workforce dropped 25 percent from 2001 to 2015 — from 62,057 full-time equivalent employees to 46,588 — while the costs of state employees actually increased from $3.9 billion to $5.4 billion, growth that even outpaced inflation.

There are plenty of ways to measure the size and scope of government. I recommend the Fraser Institute's index of economic freedom in North America. Measuring the quality of government services is hard and rarely done.

Statistics like the ones used by Governing Magazine are interesting to consider, but we should be careful about assuming what they tell about the value of government services. They don’t tell us much about the costs nor the quality of these services, but these are (or should be) the primary concerns of taxpayers and recipients of public services.

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