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A Civil Service That Fails Today's Test

By Donald F. Kettl
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page B01

Washington has always been a company town. That, in fact, was precisely what Congress wanted to create when it carved the federal district out of Maryland and Virginia in 1790 -- a place where the national government could do its business beyond the control of the states. As the government workforce exploded in the late 19th century, the idea of a politically neutral corps of public servants bound by a common mission and a core set of values, performing the daily functions of government through wars and sweltering August heat, certainly enhanced that company town feeling. The politicians may have held the best parties, but Washington's personality was really defined by its bureaucrats.

Now, however, there's a crisis in the company town. The civil service system that drives the bureaucracy is broken. Every careful look at it over the last decade, including two commissions and a series of reports by the Government Accountability Office, has concluded that a century's worth of personnel problems have become encrusted like barnacles on the ship of state, making it ever harder to steer. Quite simply, the government's ability to do its job is falling behind the problems it faces. The current civil service system isn't producing the managers the government needs, nor are they equipped to do the job that has to be done.

The wrong type: An outmoded federal civil service system can no longer meet the challenges that our modern government faces, the author argues. () Underwood & Underwood/corbis)

Separating 'Spoils' and Service

Leave it to the ancient Chinese to think of it first. No, not fireworks, but the civil service -- the non-legislative, non-judicial, non-military branches of government that select their employees by competitive exam. In the United States, the civil service notion took root in the late 19th century, in reaction to the notorious "spoils system" (as in "to the victor belong the spoils"), by which elected politicians filled government jobs with their friends and supporters. In 1883, the Pendleton Act attempted to divorce civil service from political patronage. But it wasn't easy. As one New York politico declared: "You can't keep an organization together without patronage. Men ain't in politics for nothin'." Here are some key dates in the evolution of civil service:

206 B.C.-220 A.D.
The Han dynasty uses competitive exams to select civil officials.

Frederick William, elector of Brandenburg, creates a civil administration staffed through competitive exams.

1790s-Early 1800s
Napoleonic reforms transform the royal service into a civil service.

U.S. civilian workforce, 1821: 6,914
After President Andrew Jackson introduces the spoils system to federal government, lines of job-seekers form daily around the White House. With neither the rival Whig nor the Democratic parties dominant enough to hold on to the presidency, the constant changes in the workforce cripple the career service. Agitation for reform begins after the Civil War (1861-65). The excesses of New York City's Tammany Hall political machine also prompt calls for reform on the national level.

The civil service is established, strictly excluding British civil servants from politics.

U.S. civilian workforce, 1871:
In 1871, Congress authorizes President Ulysses S. Grant, whose administration is riddled with corruption, to appoint a Civil Service Commission, but it lasts just a few years. President Rutherford B. Hayes uses competitive testing to fill federal positions.

U.S. civilian workforce, 1881:
Reform efforts take off after President James Garfield's assassination in 1881 by a man believed to be a deranged office seeker. Two years later, the Pendleton Act re-establishes the Civil Service Commission, ending the practice of assessing federal workers a portion of their salary for the benefit of the political party that appointed them. The act makes it unlawful to fire or demote employees for political reasons and establishes the merit system in offices with more than 50 employees, covering about 10 percent of workers.

U.S. civilian workforce, 1891:
Appointed to the Civil Service Commission, Theodore Roosevelt devotes himself to combating the still-entrenched spoils system. The number of jobs subject to competitive exams goes up, and women become eligible for civil service positions.

U.S. civilian workforce, 1901:
Involvement in party politics wanes as workforce professionalism rises.

U.S. civilian workforce, 1921:
Eighty percent of the civil service is operating under merit system rules.

U.S. civilian workforce, 1931:
FDR's New Deal creates numerous agencies whose staffs are not subject to the merit system, but new rules adopted in 1938 extend the system to 90 percent of the nation's 1.8 million civil employees.

U.S. civilian workforce, 1941:
The 1940 Hatch Act forbids campaign contributions by officeholders. The civil service expands to 3.8 million during World War II, but the merit system is virtually abandoned. Administrators begin to chafe at new procedures that make it difficult to remove poor workers.

U.S. civilian workforce, 1970:
Partly in response to corruption in the Nixon administration, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 abolishes the Civil Service Commission, splitting its functions among the Office of Personnel Management, Federal Labor Relations Authority and Merit Service Protection Board.

U.S. civilian workforce, 1990:
New rules allow most civil servants to engage in political activity on their own time. Breaking with the civil service system, Congress allows the Federal Aviation Administration and the IRS to adopt new personnel rules.

U.S. civilian workforce, 2001:
A new personnel system is proposed for the newly created Department of Homeland Security. The Defense Department follows suit.

SOURCES: Infoplease.com, Reader's Companion to American History, Digital History, Historyalive.com, Federaltimes.com, U.S. Statistical Abstract

This was the impetus behind new employment rules announced this month at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Added to changes already underway in the Federal Aviation Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, they mean that half of all federal workers could soon be operating under a brand-new system designed to replace rigidity with flexibility and shift an emphasis on process to an accent on performance.

Though that's a step in the right direction, it also raises new problems. A dual-track process that reforms some agencies while leaving others in the dust can only further undermine the government's ability to do what needs to be done. We badly need reform, but it has to be realized in a way that creates a new ethos of high performance that unites, not divides, the company town.

The proposed Pentagon and DHS changes may make February 2005 the most important month for federal personnel policy since January 1883, when the Pendleton Act built the foundation for the current much-maligned system. As the federal bureaucracy began to burgeon after the Civil War, the spoils system by which jobs had traditionally been filled broke down. Desperate job-seekers besieged newly elected presidents, and Congress and the White House tussled endlessly over patronage positions. At the same time, a rising need for more advanced skills -- from typing to scientific expertise -- called for a different approach to hiring. The new civil service provided a competent, professional bureaucracy hired and promoted on the basis of merit rather than political favoritism.

Today, though, both workers and managers agree that the civil service system no longer works for anyone. Managers complain that the system's hardened skeleton, the "general schedule" that determines employee pay and promotion based on an intricate structure of grades and steps -- and chiefly rewards longevity over performance -- makes it hard to motivate employees to be productive and to reward the stars who excel.

In addition, the longstanding civil service test is out of sync with the skills in demand. The government's ability to size up its workforce needs has lagged way behind its shifting responsibilities, particularly since the 9/11 attacks, which made it critical for government to be able to adapt quickly to new challenges.

Prospective employees, meanwhile, regularly complain that the hiring process is slow, unpredictable and unfair. Many throw up their hands and flee to the nonprofit world, or to private contractors, where they can be paid better for doing government work. Current employees, for their part, bemoan a lack of adequate training and compensation, as well as restrictions on travel and promotions that get in the way of doing their jobs.

Civil service workers used to put up with their frustrations because of the security that a government job once brought. But the dramatic downsizing of the Clinton years, when federal employment in the District of Columbia tumbled by more than one-sixth, changed all that. Company loyalty is an outdated notion in the company town these days.

These tensions have made civil service reform more than just a company-town concern. The costs to us all of a government without the right people in the right jobs are becoming painfully clear.

Consider the FBI's struggle with its "Trilogy" project, launched in 1999 to help the bureau upgrade its cumbersome computer system. FBI agents were struggling with ancient desktop computers and a database that sometimes required them to page through 11 screens to find a single piece of information.

Earlier this month, however, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III revealed that, after more than five years of work, Trilogy didn't function, and that $104 million invested in it had gone down the drain. Mueller bravely stepped forward to take the blame. But the Department of Justice's inspector general found that the failure was due to poor management decisions, inadequate program oversight and a lack of employees with the skills to handle such a sweeping project. Private contractors were building the system, but the FBI didn't have the ability to manage them.

After the Columbia shuttle accident in 2003, investigators likewise found that NASA had lost its in-house ability to assess whether a piece of insulation that struck the craft's wing on liftoff had presented a risk to the mission. That assessment instead fell to the private contractors who do 90 percent of the work on the shuttle project. This is symptomatic of a fundamental change in the company town: the rise of private contractors doing much of the government's work -- and government's difficulty in developing a workforce with the skills to manage them.

Though all parties agree that the civil service system desperately needs repair, no one trusts anyone else to wield the tools. Public employee unions and many Democrats are convinced that Republican "reform" means cutting programs, slashing positions, trying to wipe out the unions. Many Republicans are convinced that the unions and Democrats are busy digging a hopeless Maginot line to defend old-style government and out-of-date personnel protections.

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