The Writings of Carl Schurz/Municipal Government and Civil Service Reform


I beg leave to invite attention to a phase of the problem of municipal government which in the consideration of schemes of reform should never be lost sight of. It will be admitted that there is not a municipal government in this country, on whatever pattern organized, which will not work well when administered by honest, public-spirited, capable and well trained men. On the other hand, the best form of municipal government will work badly when administered by bunglers or knaves, the worse the longer they are in office. It is a matter of experience that municipal misgovernment develops its worst attributes when selfish and unscrupulous politicians succeed in continuing themselves, or their kind, in the possession of official power by the support of a large force of voters organized in their interest. This becomes possible in the same measure as the municipal officers have a more or less large mass of patronage to dispose of by a skillful distribution of which they can attract to themselves persons of local influence who together with their dependents and friends, and with the large number of expectants whom the prospect of spoil always attracts, will muster a powerful host at the polls. Such a voting force, impelled by a mercenary interest, is easily organized and drilled. It will obediently follow the command of the chiefs from whom favors have been obtained and further favors are expected, and it will be always ready for united action. It may constitute only a minority of all the voters of the community, but its compact organization, its strict discipline, its constant readiness for united action, will usually give it a great advantage over the majority, which but seldom can be united against it without the impulse of an uncommon excitement. From time to time an outraged and indignant community will rise up and sweep the dishonest rulers from power; but if the same means for alluring, and the same facilities for organizing the mercenary element remain in existence, the same class of men will continue to regain the temporarily lost places when the watchfulness and energy of the public-spirited citizens become less effective or when the opposition to the dishonest permits itself to be distracted by party polities, and then the same kind of misrule will return. This is in a few words the history of most of the municipal governments in our large cities.

It is always wise to learn from the enemy. The politicians who look upon our municipal governments as mines to be worked for their benefit and who wish to entrench themselves in the municipal offices against the assaults of the so-called “better element,” naturally desire and endeavor to increase as much as possible the mass of patronage to be manipulated by them. And as the patronage mainly consists of places in the public employment drawing salaries or wages, and of contracts expected to yield profit, they will to the utmost of their opportunities seek to multiply official employments as well as public works, regardless of the public interest. They will also, by exacting little work for good pay, make the offices as attractive, and by granting favorable terms to the contractors, the contracts as profitable as possible. The more favors they have at their disposal for distribution among faithful adherents, the larger a following they can organize and hold at their command; the more strongly they will be fortified in their seats of power; and the easier it will be to them, after a reverse, to keep their organization in fighting trim and to restore their power upon the same basis. In fact, the very existence of a large patronage to be distributed by way of favor will always be a temptation to abuse it for selfish purposes. This temptation will be the more seductive, the stronger the mercenary element is among the people; and this element is naturally strongest in the large cities.

The mercenary element can as such be enlisted for political work only when there are means for gratifying it. In the same measure as the means of that gratification cease to be available, the mercenary element will cease to be a potent factor in politics. Strip Tammany Hall permanently of the means of feeding its adherents out of the public purse, and Tammany Hall, such as it is at present, will no longer be a power. To this end it is not sufficient merely to defeat the Tammany candidates at the polls, for so long as the plunder exists, the organization will stick together in the hope of recovering that plunder at the next election. It is, therefore, necessary so to limit the quantity of patronage subject to distribution by way of favor, that Tammany Hall, after a defeat, has not only nothing, or only very little, to give for the time being, but that it has nothing, or only very little, to promise in case of a return to power. Then its mercenary forces will gradually scatter and its power will crumble away. The same applies to similar organizations of the mercenary element in other places.

The area of patronage subject to distribution by favor should therefore be restricted to the narrowest possible limits. The first step to this end is to place the whole clerical force of the municipal government by law under rules regulating appointments similar to those which govern the so-called classified service of the United States. This requires a system of examinations upon the result of which appointments are to depend; and these examinations should throughout be competitive—the men rated highest to receive the places—for only competitive examinations honestly conducted exclude the exercise of favor. Nor should exceptions from the operation of the competitive rule, such as still exist in the United States service, be admitted. Most of these exceptions are not only unnecessary but hurtful in their effect. There is, for instance, no good reason why an employee of the Government who is required to give bond should be exempted from the competitive rule while another charged with similar duties is subject to it, for those who are graded highest in the examination are probably the most able to secure the required bond. Many of the so-called confidential places which have been exempted on the pretended ground that they are confidential, have no confidential character worth speaking of. It is now admitted by every well-informed man that the exemption from the civil service rules of the chiefs of division in the great offices is not only not in any sense demanded by the public interest, but that it has a demoralizing effect upon the service. In general it may be said that the exceptions serve only to save for the spoils-monger as many places as under any plausible pretext could be saved, and that their existence is a constant incitement to circumvention of the law.

The second step is to put the whole laboring force of the municipal government, skilled as well as unskilled, under rules to govern permanent as well as temporary employment, similar to those which are in force in Boston under the registration system for laborers, and as have been introduced in the navy yards of the United States by Secretary Tracy and are continued in force by Secretary Herbert. As a general principle, skilled labor requiring specific accomplishments for the work to be done, the possession of which can be well ascertained and relatively measured by competitive tests, should be put under the competitive rule. As to unskilled labor, such as street sweeping and the like, an examination as to physical fitness and a good report as to character will be sufficient to qualify for registration, those who have been registered to be employed in the order of their application for registry.

Opinions have somewhat differed among the friends of civil service reform as to whether promotions from lower to higher grades should also be regulated by competitive tests. It is readily admitted that a good title to promotion may be established by practical efficiency and the qualities constituting what is called executive ability, the evidence of which cannot be furnished by an examination in the ordinary sense. It is also true that ordinarily the superior officer knows best which of his subordinates are deserving of promotion, and that on this point no better authority can be invoked than his judgment. But it is no less true that when a public officer is subject to political influence, it is usually this influence, and not his personal judgment, that determines the promotion of his subordinates, and that this influence usually pays no regard to those considerations of the public interest by which promotions should be governed. And it is a common experience that the pressure of this influence is but seldom effectually resisted even by dutiful public officers unless their power of resistance finds some outside support. They have to be protected against that pressure by a bulwark of law behind which they can shelter themselves and which political influence cannot easily surmount. To this end a rule to govern promotions may be made providing for examination touching the knowledge required by the duties to be performed, together with an impartial and methodical inquiry into the official record of the candidate to verify as nearly as possible his practical efficiency and his executive ability. Even such a method may not always suffice accurately to fix the relative merits of different candidates for promotion and to furnish in every case the best possible man for the superior place. But it will at least tend to remove promotions in the service from the reach of political influence, which of all the powers determining appointments and promotions is the most regardless of justice to individuals as well as to the public interest.

This is in fact the feature of civil service reform which cannot be too strongly emphasized. Its object is not merely to discover by means of examinations among a number of candidates for public employment the most competent, but to relieve the public service as well as our whole political life as much as possible of the demoralizing influence of political favoritism and mercenary motive, and thus to lift them to a higher place not only intellectually but morally. Its improving effect upon the practical efficiency of the service will indeed be considerable. It obliges the candidate for appointment to stand solely upon his merit and therefore to prepare himself for a good showing. It makes the public servant thus appointed feel that his retention in office will depend not upon the favor of any influential individual, but only upon his own zeal and competency in discharging his duties. It tells the aspirant to promotion that his ambition will be gratified only if he furnishes proof of superior ability, knowledge and practical work. All this will inspire the public servants with a self-respecting purpose to do their utmost, not to please a political patron, but to give to the public the best of that kind of service for which they were appointed.

But what is at least equally important—the farther this system is extended, the more public places are withdrawn from the reach of political favoritism, the more the patronage is curtailed with which the selfish political manipulator can organize and hold his mercenary following, the more difficult will it become to keep a political machine composed of the mercenary element in working order, the less influential a part will spoils and plunder play in our political life, the less profitable will politics become to the political speculator, the more congenial will the occupation with public affairs become to the good citizen and the better will be the chance for good government.

It is important, therefore, that the system which restricts the selection for public employment to persons of ascertained fitness should be made to cover as many places as possible. This applies not only to the lower but also to the higher grades. To this end it seems to me desirable that when municipal offices are to be filled the discharge of the duties of which requires professional knowledge, skill and experience, the selection should be confined to professional men of good standing. Let us take for an example a department about which there may be some doubt in this respect, the department of public works, meaning the department which has in its charge the matter of drainage, of water supply, of street paving and similar things. It is certainly one of the most important branches of the municipal government. There is no doubt that the administration of that department will serve the community best when not only all the laborers employed are able-bodied, steady, moral, hard-working men, each skilled according to the work he has to do, but when the men charged with the planning and the direction of the work are able, trained and experienced civil engineers. That there should be a staff of engineers answering this description nobody will dispute. The question is whether it would not be wise to make it an invariable rule that the responsible head of the department, the commissioner, or by whatever name he may go, should also be an engineer of good standing in the profession.

I know it is said that the head of such a department should possess certain qualifications other than mere professional skill; that he should have business experience and a high degree of what is commonly called executive ability. This is true. But among civil engineers executive ability is probably as abundantly found as among any other class of persons; and it will not be denied that the required executive ability combined with engineering skill and experience will in that office be especially valuable. There is, however, another point of importance to be considered. A commissioner of public works who is not an engineer, but only an able politician, or, let us assume for argument's sake, an able business man in the general sense, will be much more exposed to political temptation than an engineer of good standing would be. The engineer would have a professional reputation to take care of, and it would be, aside from his duty to the public, his natural ambition to use the opportunities of his office for making a great name for himself in his profession. He will, therefore, be likely to make every possible effort to get rid of the intrusion of political influence, which he will soon recognize as a great danger in his path, and to make his department in the best sense a business department.

I may be reminded of the fact that in the freest countries in the world, the United States and England, it has been found wise to confide the government departments of war and of the navy to non-professional men, to civilians. But the offices of the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy are political offices. There are political duties connected with them. It is therefore proper that they should be given to politicians. It may be remarked, however, that almost every other government of note, the constitutional as well as the absolute, prefer for the war department a general and for the navy department an admiral. But the office of the commissioner of public works is in no sense a political office. On the contrary, politics should be kept away from it as far as possible. And I doubt whether anything else would be more calculated to keep politics permanently away from it than, in conjunction with the extension of the civil service rules over all the inferior places, the establishment of a rule making only engineers of good standing eligible to the office of commissioner.

It may also be objected that a thoroughly upright and very able business man, not a professional engineer, may sometimes be found to fill quite successfully the office of commissioner of public works. Mr. White, who has recently been appointed to that place by the reform mayor of Brooklyn, Mr. Schieren, may be pointed out as an instance. Mr. White happens to have been educated as a civil engineer. But as he has for many years past followed mercantile pursuits, we may accept him as a merchant, and as such as the model of a public-spirited business man in office. I am far from denying that his appointment was the ideal one under the circumstances. I am far from asserting that Mayor Schieren could have done better. I am far from fearing that Mr. White will be accessible to political influence. But I do say that the appointment of Mr. White has attracted so much attention because it is so far above the ordinary level. And I venture to say further, that, taking a period of twenty-five years, a majority, if not a very large majority, of non-professional men put into that office on the ground of general business ability would either be politicians at the start, or soon become subjected to political influence, to the detriment of the public interest. On the other hand, I am far from pretending that every civil engineer put into that place would be absolutely proof against political influences. But I think I risk nothing in saying that, taking a period of twenty-five years, a large majority of professional engineers in that position would not become subjected to political influence, but fight it off, greatly to the benefit of the public interest. And it is such averages that we have to look to in considering the wisdom of a general rule.

The same reasoning applies to the sanitary department, which certainly should be under the exclusive control of men versed in sanitary science, who have a professional conscience to guide them, a professional reputation to take care of and a professional ambition to spur them on.

It applies equally to the police department, the direction of which should be confided not to a board composed of politicians who almost necessarily will think it their principal business to distribute spoils and to put the police to political uses—nor to mere amateurs in the police business, but to one responsible man to whom the discharge and the study of police duties has become a life-calling, who has won a reputation in that line, a professional policeman, whose natural ambition it will be to make a name for himself as a great chief of police, and who, being charged with full responsibility for the conduct of his department, will not be inclined to permit politics to deprive him of that name. The same may be said of the fire department, but it is unnecessary to elaborate.

The selection of fit men for these places, under such restrictions as indicated, would properly be confided to the executive head of the municipality, the mayor. He will, of course, be liable to err, and he may be controlled by motives not in accord with the public interest. These are contingencies against which it is impossible to provide by any legislative contrivance. The problem is as much as possible to enlarge the power of such an officer for good, and to circumscribe his capacity and his opportunities for mischief. With a civil service law, and rules under that law stripping the chiefs of the city departments of patronage for distribution by favor, and with legal provisions cutting off the pay of persons not properly appointed, the inducement to select for these places men with a view to the use of their offices for political ends would be greatly lessened, and it is probable that gradually a custom would grow up to select men for chiefs of the departments, when such places become vacant, from the number of the professional assistants already in the service. In general, the promotion for ascertained merit from one place to another up to the top would be greatly facilitated; and it requires no argument to prove that this would redound in a high degree not only to the benefit of the service but also to the moral elevation of municipal politics.

I am very far from asserting that the mere formal introduction of the system I speak of would be a panacea for all the ills in municipal government that afflict us. No system however wisely devised will work automatically. It will require faithful and competent men to direct and watch over its working. As experience shows, no sooner is the merit system introduced anywhere in the service, than the spoils-politicians exhaust all the resources of their ingenuity in the endeavor to “beat the law.” They fight it desperately for they know that it threatens their means of subsistence. They usually succeed for a time to a certain extent, and then, taking advantage of their own wrong, they cry out that civil service reform is a humbug. But after a while fortune turns against them, the fraudulent circumventions of the law are exposed, the proper remedies are applied and the reformed system not only regains its foothold but advances step by step. Of this, too, present experience furnishes us an object-lesson in New York where civil service reform lay in a torpid state during the glacial period of the Hill régime, but is now thawed out again by a recent change in the weather and makes itself decidedly disagreeable to many of the scoffers and evil-doers. It has evidently come not only to stay but to grow. Of course, to make it bear its full fruit in municipal government the vigilance of an enlightened public opinion and the active and constant participation of public-spirited citizens in municipal affairs can never be dispensed with.

Neither do I mean to detract from the importance of other measures of municipal reform, such as the proper definition of responsibility and its conspicuous lodgment in officials who can be held to account; or legislation to prevent election frauds, or to facilitate the nomination and effective support of independent candidates, or to separate municipal from State and National elections, and the like. The great value of such reformatory measures I fully appreciate. I believe, however, that the widest possible application of civil service reform principles to all the departments of municipal government is not merely a desirable, but an indispensable complement of all the other reforms, for it touches the most of the evil; that as appointments to office cease to be made by way of favoritism and for political ends, and as they are bestowed solely according to merit, and in the higher grades upon men of professional skill and standing, not only the service will be improved in point of character, efficiency and economy, but the means for attracting, feeding and organizing the mercenary element will be curtailed, and the influence of that element will grow less; and that in the same measure as the influence of the mercenary element dwindles, municipal government will again become an attractive field of endeavor and honor to men of self-respect, of enlightened public spirit and of noble ambition.

  1. Address delivered at first meeting of the National Municipal League, Philadelphia, Jan. 25, 1894.