A groundswell of reform of encrusted civil service systems, which government officials say bar them from managing effectively in the public's behalf, is mounting in the nation's capital and states across the country.
Wisconsin, famed bastion of LaFollette Progressivism and patronagefree government, last month approved what backers call "the most comprehensive and significent overhaul of the Wisconsin civil service system since its inception 72 years ago." Oregon's legislature voted in the spring to remove more than 300 top positions from civil services, entrusting them to direct appointment by the governor instead. New York and Kansas are engaged in stem-tostern review of their civil service systems wit a view to making the career service more responsive to elected officials.
And the Carter administration, under the leadership of Civil Service Commission Chairman Alan K. Campbell, is preparing to recommend reforms that would revolutionize the way the federal government manages its 2.8-million-person vicilian work force.
Ask almost any government manager around the country about civil service, and you're likely to hear a long list of complaints: The system is enmeshed in a web of rules and regulations; tests of dubious validity are used for entry and promotion; exceptional government sercice goes unrewarded while mediocre performance is protected; civil service workers get birtual lifetime tenure.
And there's internal conflict, critics say, in civil service commissions that hire and fire workers and then must act as judges on grievances and protect against political abuse.
Defenders of existing civil service say "reform" would politicize government service, returning the spoils system that prompted passage of the national civil service law in 1883 and parallel laws in states and communities across the nation. But the choice, one Eastern city official says, is between "the 5 per cent graft of a patronage system and the 55 per cent inefficiency of civil service."
The chief danger today, says Campbell, "is not the danger of spoils; it's making the system productive." The reasons: Government has stopped its helter-skelter growth of the '50s and '60s, additional tax dollars are scarce, and people want "to get more bang for the buck" they pay in taxes. Thus civil service reform is getting serious consideration from coast to coast.
Wisconsin state Sen. Paul Offner took up civil service as a crusade when one state government executive after another told him the system "was simply an impediment to efficient management." He persuaded the governor to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to come us with reform ideas, and in a special November session the legislature adopted almost all the commission's proposals.
The Wisconsin bill rescues personnel management from an independent bureau three steps removed from the governor, placing it in a new cabinet-level department. Grievances and appeals will be handled by a separate appeals board.
Campbell favors a similar break-up of the U.S. Civil Service COmmission - setting up an independent meritsystem protection board to hear employee appeals, and then placing "the positive side" of CSC functions, from recruiting and examining to equal employment opportunity policies, in an office of personnel management directly under the President.
"It is my dream." Campbell says, side the Office of Mangement and Budget and make the management of people just as important as the management of money."
Campbell also hopes to speed up the incredibly slow process - averaging seven months - that it takes to hire federal workers, and to shorten to 90 days the periods of up to three years now required to discipline exployees.
Firing is so difficult that fewer than 3,500 federal workers were discharged for inefficiency or "cause" last year - a rate of one-seventh of 1 per cent,Leonard Reed reported in The Washington Monthly. At that rate, a small business employing 10 people would fire one person for enefficiency every 70 years.
Wisconsin currently has several major departments in which the top management includes only two non-vicil service employees: the director and his deputy. To correct that, the new law adds 39 political appointee slots. "It's unrealistic," Offner says, "to expect a cabinet secretary to implement the governor's policies if he or she is saddled with a set of top managers who have no sympathy with those policies and who enjoy effective lifetime tenure."
The Carter administration decided not to ask for expansion of the 2,000 odd political-appointee jobs open to the PResident. But it's likely to recommend a new Exevutive Career Service, encompassing 10,000 to 12,000 "supergrade" and other high-level officials.
A variety of "carrots and sticks" would be used to encourage the top careerists to operate efficiently and respond to Cabinet Secretaries and agency heads. The carrots: bonuses and promotions for good performance. The sticks: power of the administration to transfer them wherever it liked in the bureaucracy and to demote poor achievers to lower grades.
Some 15 per cent of the jobs at the Executive Career Service level would be reserved for political appointees - about the present proportion. But the administration would have power to move them up and down the hierarchy, so that less competent political appointees - those foisted on the President by politically powerful members of Congress, for instance - could be made subordinate to more capable careerists. That would mean, in turn, that some careerists could aspire to even higher jobs than are now open to them.
The Carter reform package - like Wisconsin's - will probably call for liberalizing the rule that forces a government manager to fill a job with one of the top three scorers on frequently flawed civil service test. Wisconsin cut back severely on veterans' preference points in hiring and promotions - a device critics say has made it much harder for women and minorities to get government jobs. Campbell is anxious to effect a similar reform on the federal level.
While the President himself - judging from his statements - hasn't fully gotten the "gospel" of civil service reform, a number of key administration officials seem to understand that the benefits of personnel reform could match or exceed those of the highly vaunted reorganization effort.
What the states are showing is that, when the battle for a more flexible and responsvie civil service is undertaken with vigor, it can be won.