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Big Government in Virginia

An in-depth e-mail from a reader sparked our interest in the size of Virginia’s government – specifically its executive branch – and its performance. The reader, who perhaps works for the commonwealth, wrote:

My nice and curious question is does size really matter? Does the size of the executive branch facilitate faster adoption of lasting change? Or is it concentrating too much power and not enough accountability? Does Virginia operate more effectively because functions are so decentralized and there’s (presumably) less bureaucracy? (We have about 19 large agencies, and about 50 teeny-tiny agencies.) Does Michigan [Authors’ Note: with a much smaller number of agencies] think more like an enterprise because it is structured more like an enterprise? Virginia tends to act as a collection of small businesses.

We realize this is a question for the political scientists and certainly not an easy task. There are too many variables – population, revenue sources, differing bureaucratic structures or various performance evaluation standards – to make comparing state governments simple.


One place to start might be the Grading the States 2008 project of the Pew Center on the States. Each year the project evaluates how well states manage employees, budgets and finance, information and infrastructure. States are graded, but not ranked. In 2008, Virginia was one of three states to receive an overall grade of A-, the highest grade given. The others were Utah and Washington.


Based on 2006 U.S. Census Bureau figures, Utah has a little more than 50,000 full-time equivalent state employees versus Virginia’s more than 122,500. This is in part a function of population. Utah’s estimated population as of July 1, 2007, is close to 2.5 million; Virginia’s is 7.7 million. The number of state employees in the state of Washington is closer to Virginia’s numbers: near 117,000 and the population is slightly less than Virginia’s at 6.4 million.


Virginia lists more than 270 agencies, departments, offices and commissions on its government website; the state of Washington lists close to 200 entities. Due to the similar size populations of these states, it is probably understandable that the size of their bureaucracies is also similar. But Utah, also given an A- by the Pew group, lists about the same number of agencies, departments, etc. on its website, with a population more than two times smaller than the Old Dominion.


Since our reader mentioned Michigan, that state does have a smaller bureaucracy with only about 100 departments, agencies, boards, task forces, etc. listed on its Web site, but the Pew study only awarded it a B+ — still above the national average of B- given to 18 states.


Rhode Island, which only earned a C-, also lists close to 100 government entities on its Web site. But, New Hampshire at the bottom of the Pew list with a D+, has close to 200 government agencies.


So the verdict is definitely not in. Our reader did ask an interesting question that merits a comprehensive study, if one has not already been done. Does the size of a state’s bureaucracy matter? Is a decentralized government with many agencies better than a more centralized organization? Is it better to duplicate various functions such as human resources and finance in separate agencies or consolidate them in one central place? We imagine these are questions that have already kept policy wonks and political scientists up at night.


But, in the meantime, it is still possible to find some quirky jobs in state government. In Oklahoma, you can become a boll weevil picker or a personal grooming specialist. Oregon was recently seeking a cake decorator. At the moment Virginia is looking for an art model (life), an archeology assistant and a quarry mason, among others. There’s definitely more to public service than meets the eye.

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