located at the principal post offices, custom houses and other government offices, being composed of three or more Federal employees in those offices. About 50,000 persons annually compete in these examinations, and about 10,000 of those who are successful receive appointments through regular certification. Persons thus appointed, however, must serve six months “on probation” before their appointment can be made absolute. At the end of this probation, if his service has not been satisfactory, the appointee is simply dropped; and the fact that less than 1% of those appointed prove thus deficient on trial is high testimony to the practical nature of the examinations held by the commission, and to their aptness for securing persons qualified for all classes of positions.
The effects of the Civil Service Act within the scope of its actual operation have amply justified the hopes and promises of its advocates. After its passage, absentee holders of lucrative appointments were required to report for duty or to sever their connexion with the service. Improved methods were adopted in the departments, and superfluous and useless work was no longer devised in order to provide a show of employment and a locus standi for the parasites upon the public service. Individual clerks were required, and by reason of the new conditions were enabled, to do more and better work; and this, coupled with the increase in efficiency in the service on account of new blood coming in through the examinations, made possible an actual decrease in the force required in many offices, notwithstanding the natural growth in the amount of work to be done. Experience proves that the desire to create new and unnecessary positions was in direct proportion to the power to control them, for where the act has taken away this power of control the desire had disappeared naturally. There is no longer any desire on the part of heads of departments to increase the number or salaries of classified positions which would fall by law within the civil service rules and be subject to competitive examinations. Thus the promises of improvement and economy in the service have been fulfilled.
The chief drawback to the full success of the act within its intended scope of operation has been the withholding of certain positions in the service from the application of the vital principle of competition. The Civil Service Act contemplated no exceptions, within the limits to which it was made applicable, to the general principle of competition upon merit for entrance to the service. In framing the first civil service rules, however, in 1883, the president, yielding to the pressure of the heads of some of the departments, and against the urgent protest of the Civil Service Commission, excepted from the requirement of examination large numbers of positions in the higher grades of the service, chiefly fiduciary and administrative positions such as cashiers, chief clerks and chiefs of division. These positions being thus continued under the absolute control of the appointing officer, the effect of their exception from examination was to retain just that much of the old or “spoils” system within the nominal jurisdiction of the new or “merit” system. Even more: under the old system, while appointments from the outside had been made regardless of fitness, still those appointments had been made in the lower grades, the higher positions being filled by promotion within the service, usually of the most competent, but under the new system with its exceptions, while appointments to the lower grades were filled on the basis of merit, the pressure for spoils at each change of administration forced inexperienced, political or personal favourites in at the top. This blocked promotions and demoralized the service. Thus, while the general effect of the act was to limit very greatly the number of vicious appointments, at the same time the effect of these exceptions was to confine them to the upper grades, where the demoralizing effect of each upon the service would be a maximum. By constant efforts the Civil Service Commission succeeded in having position after position withdrawn from this excepted class, until by the action of the president, on the 6th of May 1896, it was finally reduced almost to a minimum. By subsequent presidential action, however, on the 29th of May 1899, the excepted class was again greatly extended.
A further obstacle to the complete success of the merit system, and one which prevents the carrying forward of the reform to the extent to which it has been carried in Great Britain, is inherent in the Civil Service Act itself. All postmasters who receive compensation of $1000 or more per annum, and all collectors of customs and collectors of internal revenue, are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and are therefore, by express provision of the act, not “required to be classified.” The universal practice of treating these offices as political agencies instead of as administrative business offices is therefore not limited by the act. Such officers are active in political work throughout the country, and their official position adds greatly to their power to affect the political prospects of the leaders in their districts. Accordingly the Senate, from being, as originally intended, merely a confirming body as to these officers, has become in a large measure, actually if not formally, a nominating body, and holds with tenacity to the power thus acquired by the individual senators. Thorough civil service reform requires that these positions also, and all those of fourth-class postmasters (partly classified by order of 1st Dec. 1908), be made subject to the merit system, for in them is the real remaining stronghold of the spoils system. Even though all their subordinates be appointed through examination, it will be impossible to carry the reform to ultimate and complete success so long as the officers in charge are appointed mainly for political reasons and are changed with every change of administration.
The purpose of the act to protect the individual employees in the service from the rapacity of the “political barons” has been measurably, if not completely, successful. The power given the Civil Service Commission, to investigate and report upon violations of the law, has been used to bring to light such abuses as the levying of political contributions, and to set the machinery of the law in motion against them. While comparatively few actual prosecutions have been brought about, and although the penalties imposed by the act for this offence have been but seldom inflicted, still the publicity given to all such cases by the commission’s investigations has had a wholesome deterrent effect. Before the passage of the act, positions were as a general rule held upon a well-understood lease-tenure, the political contributions for them being as securely and as certainly collected as any rent. Now, however, it can be said that these forced contributions have almost entirely disappeared. The efforts which are still made to collect political funds from government employees in evasion of the law are limited in the main to persuasion to make “voluntary” contributions, and it has been possible so to limit and obstruct these efforts that their practical effect upon the character of the service is now very small.
The same evils that the Federal Civil Service Act was designed to remedy exist to a large degree in many of the state governments, and are especially aggravated in the administration of the local governments of some of the larger cities. The chief, if not the only,State examina-
tion. test of fitness for office in many cases has been party loyalty, honesty and capacity being seldom more than secondary considerations. The result has been the fostering of dishonesty and extravagance, which have brought weakness and gross corruption into the administration of the local governments. In consequence of this there has been a constantly growing tendency, among the more intelligent class of citizens, to demand that honest business methods be applied to local public service, and that appointments be made on the basis of intelligence and capacity, rather than of party allegiance. The movement for the reform of the civil service of cities is going hand in hand with the movement for general municipal reform, those reformers regarding the merit
- For details justifying these statements, see U.S. Civil Service Commission’s Fourteenth Report, pp. 12-14.
- For the scope of these exceptions, see Civil Service Rule VI., at p. 57 of the U.S. Civil Service Commission’s Fifteenth and Sixteenth Reports. A statement of the number of positions actually affected by this action of the president appears in the Seventeenth Report.