The Civil Service Systems Governments Need for the Modern Era

Merit-based hiring systems in government are more than a century old, and some of them make managing the public workforce absurdly difficult and complicated. They need to be updated for the modern era.
by | September 4, 2013

The news that some governors of both parties want to change their states' civil-service systems might have sparked fears among some of a return to the abusive practices of the spoils system of the nation's early years. But there is much room for improvement in civil-service systems as they have evolved since their origins in the 19th century.

The popularity of civil service in the United States took off in the wake of President James Garfield's 1881 assassination by a disgruntled job-seeker who had played a minor role in his campaign and spread to the states and local governments during the 20th century. The idea was to root out patronage by instituting a merit-based testing system to determine who gets hired and promoted and to protect government workers from being replaced by political appointees each time a new executive takes office.

The goals of civil service remain valid, but it's been a very long time since the 19th-century system we use to achieve them has been up to the challenge.

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Take Massachusetts, for example. When Boston sought to hire 25 new firefighters in 2000, 29 candidates scored 100 or better on the test (extra points are given for education and experience). None of them made it into the top 200 on the hiring list; one of the 100-percenters landed at number 1,837.

The reason for these outcomes is decades of legislative tinkering to establish a series of "preferences" that make merit an afterthought. Although the Boston fire example is over a decade old, the law hasn't changed. Here is a rank-ordered list of preferences typical of those that govern civil-service hiring in Massachusetts municipalities:

• Minority applicants (if the community is under a consent decree).

• Resident children of police officers or firefighters killed in the line of duty.

• Non-resident children of police officers or firefighters killed in the line of duty.

• Resident disabled veterans.

• Resident children of police officers or firefighters injured in the line of duty.

• Non-resident children of police officers or firefighters injured in the line of duty.

• Resident veterans.

• Resident widows or widowed mothers of veterans killed in the line of duty or dead from service-connected disabilities incurred in wartime service.

• Resident non-veterans.

• Non-resident disabled veterans.

• Non-resident veterans.

• Non-resident widows or widowed mothers of veterans killed in the line of duty or dead from service-connected disabilities incurred in wartime service.

• Non-resident non-veterans.

And while civil service technically covers most state- and local-government employees, it has been well over a decade since the state even offered tests for many non-public-safety jobs. Since state law says civil-service hires can only have "provisional" status for a year, thousands of Massachusetts public employees are technically working illegally.

But simply wiping civil service out may not be the answer. As Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said, "When you think about the powers you'd like as governor or in any of these elected offices, you always have to imagine: 'Would you want your political adversaries to have those same powers?' That's a good check on how much power you can trust."

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Some states are taking steps to maintain basic civil-service protections while trying to jettison elements of the bureaucratic nightmare. Tennessee, for example, has eliminated "bumping," a practice that allows employees whose positions are being eliminated to take the jobs of less-senior workers. The result is often people doing jobs that aren't a good match for their skills.

Several reforms would help make civil service relevant again and allow it to promote the twin goals of merit and reasonable employee protections. Civil service pre-dates public-sector collective bargaining. While less than 7 percent of the nation's private employees are unionized, about 36 percent of public employees belong to unions. Overlapping civil service and union protections are unnecessary.

Civil service also should be limited to job classifications where governments can reasonably develop and administer tests. In Massachusetts, for example, that means formally eliminating the system for non-public-safety positions.

Finally, the integrity of the merit system should be protected by giving extra points -- as opposed to absolute preference -- to disabled veterans, children of public servants killed in the line of duty and other preferred classifications.

If state and local governments are to maintain civil service, it needs to be updated to achieve the goals for which it was designed more than a century ago. Nobody wants to return to the spoils system, but there is plenty of room for improvement if civil-service systems are to be an effective tool for building and maintaining a high-quality public workforce.

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