“Hypertrophic”, “poorly run”, “bloated”, “too costly”… in all countries, cliches concerning the public service are legion. New indicators allow us to see how the reality is more nuanced.
Too many public employees! The refrain is heard on the political stage with almost the same frequency as the arrival of spring. On March 22nd, for example, French public employees took to the streets to protest the government’s planned reform of the public sector. Elsewhere in Europe, liberals are always complaining that there are too many employees in the public sector. So, from country to country, what is the scale of public employment in Europe?
“Comparisons between developed countries relating to the public sector employment are tricky”, reads an illuminating paper recently published by France Stratégie. At issue are national differences with regard to the scope of each country’s public sector. Nevertheless, by deploying a number of indicators it becomes possible to paint a fairly complete portrait of the situation. The first and most basic indicator is produced by comparing the number of public employees, in the strict sense, to the number of inhabitants. Striking differences emerge – for example, there are three times more public employees in Norway than in Italy.
Another way to measure the scale of public sector employment is to look at the cost of public salaries and compare it with national wealth. This indicator is consistent with the public employment rate.
These indicators do not, however, take into account the varying scope of the public sector from country to country. If public employees in a particular country manage pensions, or healthcare, it is only logical that there are more public employees there than in countries where those tasks are left to the private sector. It is also only logical that their total salaries are greater.
To compensate for this “volume effect”, and better quantify public sector salaries, there are many indicators at our disposal. The first is provided by the ratio of public sector salaries to GDP per capita. This brings into relief the countries where public employees come out rather poorly compared to the rest of the population (notably in the Nordic countries and the UK) and the countries where public employees on the whole are better off