Wisconsin Has Far Fewer State Employees than Most States

Tuesday, October 6, 2015 at 1:19 PM by

Governor Walker’s proposal to overhaul the state’s civil service system for state employees has been in the news recently, but missing from the conversation is the fact that Wisconsin has significantly fewer state employees and smaller payrolls than most states. If one of the goals of making changes to Wisconsin’s civil service system is to ensure that Wisconsin’s state government runs efficiently, advocates for the changes should know that Wisconsin already has a lean state government with relatively low costs.

The proposed changes to the state’s civil service system would loosen hiring and firing requirements for state employees, lengthen the probation period for new state employees, and eliminate bumping rights for more senior employees. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel describes some of the changes:

“The changes include dropping the exams that job candidates for state government are often required to take in favor of a résumé system and better defining the “just cause” definition of fireable offense such as stealing from the state or showing up to work drunk. The proposal would also centralize human resources work in the state Department of Administration, an agency that is controlled more closely by the governor and his appointees than some other independent state agencies.”

Advocates for the changes say the proposal will make the state’s human resources system operate more efficiently, while critics say that weakening civil service protections for state workers will result in workers getting hired and promoted on the basis of their political connections, rather than their qualifications.

What hasn’t come up much in the discussion around changes to civil service system is that Wisconsin has relatively few state employees given the size of our population. In fact, only ten states have leaner state governments than Wisconsin.

Wisconsin had 12.6 state employee full-time equivalents (FTEs) per 1,000 state residents in 2013, according to an analysis of figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s 7.4% below the national average of 13.6 FTEs per 1,000 residents. Put another way, for every 100 state employees in other states, Wisconsin only has only 93.

Having fewer state employees translates into lower costs. Only 10 states have lower payroll costs for state employees than Wisconsin does, per state resident. In Wisconsin, payroll costs for state employees are $58 per month per state resident, 10% lower than the national average of $65 per month. Wisconsin also has lower state employee payroll costs per state resident than the neighboring states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan. (For more information on how Wisconsin compares to other states with regards to the number of government workers, see our January 2015 publication, “Wisconsin ‘s Public Sector is Leanest in Two Decades.”)


Streamlining Wisconsin’s human resources system is a laudable goal, but weakening civil service protections could actually make state government less efficient by increasing the number of state employees subject to political pressure. And proponents of the change should remember that with relatively few state employees and low costs, Wisconsin state government already runs more efficiently than many other states.

Tamarine Cornelius

2 Responses to “Wisconsin Has Far Fewer State Employees than Most States”

  1. Charity says:

    One of the things I find missing in the coverage of the proposed changes to the civil service system, which politicians advocating for the change are saying will bring about a more streamlined system that will allow hiring to occur more efficiently, is that there has been a freeze or a frost–depending on what timeframe you look at–on hiring throughout state government that dates back to the Doyle administration and continues on through the Walker administration. Changes in resumes in lieu of testing won’t address the timeframe for hiring decisions if budgetary/political deicisions continue to stymie the hiring timeframes. Further, the civil service system, as aggravating as it may be for a prospective job candidate, endeavors to create an objective set of criteria used to assess the viability of all candidates before making a hiring decision. That process eliminates subjective and often political decisions about hiring.

  2. William Franks, Jr. says:

    All available information supports the proposition that Wisconsin Public Employees and the Civil Service System are performing perfectly well. Anyone who doesn’t see this as another scheme by the current powers that be to further centralize their power and ramrod poor public policy and cronyism must be looking at something I’m not. BF.