A Century of Merit


Volume V, Number 1
Spring, 1985

A centennial celebration is a time for examination of origins but it is also the occasion for a critical assessment of performance over one hundred years of experience. In the case of the Civil Service Act of 1883 this backward-forward combination is an absolute necessity.

The achievement of the reformers in gaining this concept of merit in public service must be lauded and remembered as a significant evolution in public policy. But have the high expectations of those days been realized over time? Has the system worked that was established to serve the nation during this period of dramatic change in the role and scope of government at home and abroad? Have the provisions of 1883 created a constructive environment for the human side of government? What has been the contribution of public interest over the span of the century of merit?

Practitioners, politicians, pundits and professors will all offer differing answers to these questions. Such answers should be sought, analyzed and disseminated to the policy makers of today and tomorrow. Intensive consideration of the spectrum of issues that relate to federal personnel policy must be raised to a higher position on the executive and legislative agenda. While the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 was enacted to modernize the personnel systems, it was incomplete in its coverage and of dubious validity in certain of its provisions as demonstrated by five years of implementing experience.

Open competition was a basic tenet in the original law. It was a principle that reflected confidence in the efficacy of tests and measurements to rank ability and to select employees in accordance with their examination performance. This process was demonstrably fair. It applied the accepted mode of determining relative ability in the academic world. Where knowledge or skills were to be measured, the practice proved successful. But the certainty about tests was weakened by examinations for professional or managerial positions, or to forecast potential for longer and rising careers. A growing national suspicion about testing in general raised doubts about fairness. Cultural bias in test construction was a line of attack from those who considered examinations tilted against minorities.

With the passage of time there was growing concern whether competition was truly open. There was a belief that inadequate information was available outside of a small, knowledgeable group who were wise to the needs of federal agencies. Although open competition meant open to everyone, it tended to exclude those who viewed civil service as dominated by white males. The cry of equal employment opportunity has been properly raised in the past 25 years and directed toward public service. That direction was in keeping with the intent of the basic law but had not been applied for minority applicants. Recent years of affirmative action have produced a far more representative body of civil servants.

Over the century the public service has entered occupational and professional fields never dreamed of by the founders of the system. Virtually every job title in the occupational dictionary is represented on the federal rolls - craftsmen, technicians, scientists, engineers, astronauts, lawyers, accountants, computer programmers, air traffic controllers, firefighters, security guards, and on and on. Many positions had counterparts in the private sector but others were found only in the government. Some existed in many departments and agencies while others were unique to a particular bureau. Certain positions or agencies were exempted from civil service coverage such as the Foreign Service, Tennessee Valley Authority and the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), but more than ninty percent have been labeled "civil service" and subject to its legal and regulatory strictures.

Since the original motivation for a merit system flowed from the patronage use of federal employment by politicians, the protection of the applicant and employee against political pressures became an important feature. But to an appreciable extent in the intervening years this protection has been extended and solidified to the extent that civil service is better known for its protective features than for its emphasis upon meritorious entry and advancement. The concept of tenure in federal positions after a probationary period has gained the status of guaranteed employment. Management discretion with respect to employee performance has been narrowed by statute and regulation to the point where popular belief embraces the view that discipline is virtually impossible. In the early days of the space program, a period marked by one failure after another, the comics labeled the unfortunate missiles "civil service" because "they never worked and they could never be fired." The presumed need for protection has spawned an elaborate structure of due process to hear and adjudicate complaints from employees concerning management's treatment. This process has led to ultimate decisions in courts where overworked judges are required to evaluate the performance of executive human relations. There is little likelihood of any modernization in procedures, particularly with the media encouragement to "whistle blowing" on the part of dissenting employees. The only prospect for a more balanced relationship will come through the granting of greater authority to manage the operations for which he or she must be held accountable.

The movement toward added protection for employees and reduced authority for supervisors has been fostered by the growing impact of government employee unions on the formation of personnel policy. The move toward union formation was gradual through the century. The first collective action occurred in the traditional trades at governmental industrial institutions, such as the shipyards. Other associations were formed of clerical workers, postal clerks, letter carriers, and ultimately, a mixture of blue and white collar employees under the overarching aegis of the American Federation of Government Employees in the AFL-CIO.

But even with the extensive labor union progress during the New Deal period no executive or legislative actions were promulgated to recognize these unions and required systematic communication and negotiation. It was not until the early days of the Kennedy administration that an executive order granted such recognition under specific criteria and with the understanding that compensation and benefits were not open to collective bargaining (their authorization remained with Congress) and retained the longstanding ban on strikes against the government. The system was established in the belief that constructive benefits from organized relationships between employee unions and agency management would be in the public interest and would at least approach the freedom for collective action granted to unions in the private sector. The provisions of that executive order were incorporated in statute in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and a separate agency was established to monitor that system - the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

The most dramatic event in the long history of government labor relations was the dismissal by the Reagan administration of several thousand air traffic controllers who participated in an illegal walkout from crucially important pubic positions in 1981. The air traffic control system was operated by supervisory personnel until a new supply of trained controllers could be placed in airport towers and control centers. Various means of appeal, including the courts, failed to reverse the executive decision. This test of public policy was generally well received by the public and will in all likelihood reinforce past reluctance to grant collective bargaining or lift the ban on strikes. Because of those limitations on normal labor management relations the government managers must give added emphasis to fair and expeditious resolution of grievances and in soliciting union opinion personnel policies and practices.

The role of the bureaucracy has been subject to examination from time to time during these years. While the restrictions in the original act and supplemental regulations provided reasonably explicit prohibitions against political coercion or activity, the rapid expansion of the government in the 1930's provided support in Congress for the Hatch Act of 1939. This act strengthened the

prohibitions and assigned enforcement to the Civil Service Commission and extended coverage to state and local employees where federal funds were involved. Although there have been periodic assaults on these restrictions by government employee groups, they have continued relatively unmolested for more than forty years. The restraining effect on federal employees has produced an attitude of reluctance toward any form of permissible political activity. The declaration that "I have been Hatched" has been frequently employed to reject possible avenues of political activities at the local level. Instead, political focus has been through organized employee groups and their attempts to influence congressional judgement. These organizations are well represented on Capitol Hill and are prepared to remind Senators and Congressmen of the importance of the vote of their constituent federal employees at election time. This form of political access has proven far more successful in terms of legislative enactments than has freedom for political activity.

Over the century there have been significant changes in the organizational structure for administration and control of the merit system. The three-member Civil Service Commission, with no more than two members from one political party, became over the years the central personnel agency. It was the gatekeeper to the federal service, the appellate body for settling disputes between employees and agency managers, the principal spokesman for the government on personnel matters and the administrator of new programs such as position classification, retirement pensions, life insurance, health benefits and training leadership.

The agency grew from a small group of five or six people who could be seated around a small table to an employer of more than 5,000 workers housed in a new building (1962) in downtown Washington and in ten locations throughout the country. While the Commission proclaimed that its services were beneficial in the achievement of government programs, operational managers described its behavior as obstructionist, rigid, and addicted to standardization. The body of regulations expanded at an exponential rate. The average personnel officer needed to be familiar with a five foot shelf of regulatory material in order to live within the limitations imposed by the Commission.

As early as the 1937 Brownlow Report, there have been recommendations to eliminate the three member Commission and to substitute a single administrator who would be a part of the Executive Office, along with the Director of the Budget. He would be concerned with government-wide policy which would be carried out on a broadly delegated basis in individual departments and agencies. The ultimate enactment of the Reform Act of 1978 carried forward this concept but with serious modifications. The single director was not to be a part of the Executive Office. The new agency continued to perform most of the same functions which had built the sizeable staff in earlier times. The appellate and labor relations functions were assigned to new agencies thereby creating three organizations out of one.

It is still too early to pass judgement on the efficacy of the organizational change. Most observers while withholding judgment are inclined to reject the claims of significant progress through the reorganization. The trend of the past few years has been to place even greater emphasis on the regulatory side of personnel management. In turn, this movement has generated even greater management dissent within the operating agencies. The principle of merit can be maintained only if it is accepted and practiced by federal managers and supervisors who exercise program responsibility. With the great diversity of federal functions and personnel requirements there must be sufficient flexibility in the system to permit the merit-minded manager to construct his own program to meet his program obligations.

In the early days of civil service it was assumed that under the merit system totally qualified individuals would compete through tests and qualification evaluations for positions in the public service. In relatively few of these positions was there judged to be necessity for skills preparation or training. But with the growing complexity of government programs the requirement for a variety of occupations made it increasingly apparent that additional post-employment training was an essential ingredient in the system. This was only gradually recognized. Special training authorities were granted by the Congress for new programs. But it was not until 1959 that the general mandate for training became public policy. From that point on training activities became a regular feature in the orientation, development and advancement of those in the civil service.

While relative merit upon entry remained the standard of appointment, training opportunities were offered and encouraged. Employees sought self-development through attendance at educational institutions outside of the government. In-service training, largely featuring on-the-job exposure, gained broader acceptance. Emphasis was placed on the need for supervisory training as an integral part of the selection process for those directing the efforts of others. Even sabbaticals were granted to promising mid-career managers and specialists in custom-designed university programs. Thus, an important dynamic was added to the content and meaning of a civil service career.

The act of 1883 had been silent about employee compensation. In fact, federal salaries remained static for decades in the early history of federal employment. Not until 1923 was classification and pay design adopted for federal employees. Following World War II frequent pay adjustments became a standard cause of employee organizations and an annual problem for executive leadership. To systematize the process of pay adjustment and to establish a rational policy for compensation changes, the Congress passed, at the urging of President Kennedy, a pay comparability statute in 1962. Under that continuing policy the government has annually sought information concerning salaries for comparable work paid in the private sector and matched those rates with those paid for similar positions in the government.

While sound in theory this rational process has been under constant challenge because of disagreement over the positions selected for comparison and the stringencies of the annual budget. Comparability policy vested added discretion in the Chief Executive but maintained the involvement of the Congress in the annual determination of the federal pay schedule.

But compensation alone did not account for the total cost of federal employment. Starting with the Civil Service Retirement Act of 1920, Congress passed a series of liberalizing amendments. These employee benefits produced a retirement system substantially more generous and expensive than the retirement programs supported by employers in the private sector. In this area comparability really favored the civil servant. Sixty years ago a munificent system was adjudged to be equitable because federal salaries were assumed to be significantly less than those offered by the private employers. But with the comparability standard on pay this argument could no longer be compelling.

From its passage in 1935 through the centennial year 1983, civil service employees were exempted from the Social Security Act which covered virtually all non-federal workers. At the opening of the second century a new retirement system, integrated with social security and closely matching private fringe benefits, will govern this important and costly portion of total compensation.

During the years of rapid growth in federal government the personnel policy makers frequently justified new benefit programs on the ground that national government should be "a model employer." Another label was applied during the period of accelerating social change in the 1960s and 1970s - "government should become the employer of last resort." This meant that government employment, federal, state and local - should become the centers for employment and training of the disadvantage and the unemployed. Large appropriations were provided for public service employment on the grounds that there were limitless public improvements that could be achieved if the funds were made available to hire the necessary personnel. While the final verdict on the success in meeting such social objectives has not been delivered, these policies have tended to distort the purpose of government employment and to undermine the original standards.

With the growth of federal employment increased political power was generated within the bureaucracy. There were those who claimed that the real triangle of power flowed from the pressure groups to the congressional staffs to the permanent civil service. A sense of commitment to program objectives could become a characteristic of the federal program manager. As a consequence, new presidential administrations, particularly those with a different party affiliation or a different policy outlook, viewed the career service as an impediment if not an outright enemy. In most transitions initial complaints of lack of responsiveness on the part of the continuing government faded away as professionalism and objectivity were displayed. However, increasing demands for non-career positions at or near the top of federal organizations permitted a higher degree of political control. As the century ends there is increased confusion as to where the dividing line should be drawn between career and non-career positions in federal departments and agencies.

Ethics in government have been spotlighted from time to time during the century. Although there have been relatively few cases of unethical behavior on the part of federal employees, a few instances have led to efforts to assure appropriate behavior and conduct by presidential regulation and congressional enactment. For sensitive positions which relate to national security, preemployment investigations have been conducted to assure loyalty and suitability. Public officials with decision-making powers have been required to reveal their holdings and associations for public scrutiny. There are occasional complaints that these strictures impose a double standard of ethics with much higher requirements imposed upon public official than those applied to their counterparts in business. Such a double standard does and should exist. Through a century of experience under merit there has been increasing recognition of the necessity to apply a high standard of behavior in the public interest for those privileged to serve all the American people.