Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
CIVIL SERVICE REFORM. I. In its general and most comprehensive sense, civil service reform means the removal of abuses in the public service—federal, state and municipal—and the enforcement therein of such just and sound principles and methods as will most contribute to good administration.
—This reform, therefore, has a double aspect and two somewhat separate spheres of duty; the one being destructive and prohibitory, relating to the best means of eradicating existing evils and of preventing their repetition by the exercise of public authority; the other, being constructive and educational, relating to the development of such a public opinion and adoption of such methods for doing the work of public administration as will be effective for purity, efficiency and economy. The principal abuses and evils referred to appearing in the articles on the SPOILS SYSTEM, CONFIRMATION BY THE SENATE. POLITICAL ASSESSMENTS REMOVALS, PATRONAGE, PROMOTIONS, and TENURE OF OFFICE, it is unnecessary to repeat them here. This article will therefore deal mainly with remedies.
—A complete civil service reform would have to deal directly with the abuses connected with our elections, our legislation and our elective and partisan judiciary. Since, however, civil service reform has thus far been treated as specially referring to matters which, with some few exceptions, pertain to the executive department of government, this article will explain it in that sense. In general the offices referred to will be those which are filled by appointment; of which those in the federal service number about 100,000, and perhaps there are a much greater number under the state and city governments. But there are not adequate statistics, the census not having attempted the enumeration of officials.
—It should, however, be borne in mind that the same methods and principles, applicable to the selection and promotion of appointed officers in the executive department, are appropriate and should be applied to the selection and promotion of the appointed officers in the houses of congress, in the state legislatures, in the courts and in the municipal departments; though they can not, from their nature, be applied to the selections of officers by the ballot or any form of election. Still, it should be noticed that a thorough civil service reform, by leaving few offices to be filled by favor or to be won as spoils, would effectively suppress bribery at elections through the promise of places and promotions. It would also leave but little opportunity for members of congress or of legislatures to barter places for votes, or to coerce executive appointments in their own interest. It would, in other words, determine the bestowal of nearly all the official places which have been at once the capital of the partisan chieftain and the fuel of his machine.
—Though penal and prohibitory laws are in their nature but imperfect and inadequate agencies of reform, yet with reasonable support from public opinion, they may be made highly beneficial. Intrinsically, there is no reason why a wise law, in aid of good administration, shall not be as effective as any of the numerous wise laws in aid of good morals; and such has been proved to be the fact in Great Britain, where a reform of the civil service, quite as difficult as that needed in this country, has been greatly strengthened by laws upon which several of the following suggestions of those we need are based.
—1. The exaction of political assessments from public officials and employés, enforced as they are by fears of losing their places, is a flagrant act of injustice, a degradation of those who submit to it, and an insult and disgrace to the government itself.
—If practiced by those in office, it is a corrupting and oppressive exercise of usurped authority, and if by those representing the power of great parties, it is extortion through conspiracy and intimidation; and, in either event, it should be prohibited by law. A prudent bill for that purpose, introduced by Mr. Pendleton, is now pending in the national senate.
—2. The use of official authority or influence for controlling elections or coercing political action in any form is both a breach of a public trust and an invasion of private right and public safety, which should be made penal.
—3. The willful removal of officials known to be worthy and the willful appointment of those known to be unworthy, for mere personal or partisan reasons—the former of which Madison held would justly subject an officer to impeachment—are despotic and demoralizing abuses of official power, as well as acts of gross injustice to the persons removed or to the people; which, by extending the provisions of section 1705 of the revised statutes of the United States—a law forbidding certain removals without good cause—should be made a criminal offense. In morals, there can be no more right to use the public authority of appointment and removal for selfish and partisan ends than there is to use the public money for the same purpose.
—4. Carefully guarded legislation, in the same spirit and sanctioned by the same reasons, might, perhaps, be extended to combinations on the part of members of congress, in the use of their authority, to coerce nominations or removals, and to the prostitution of the trusts of their offices on the part of senators, in the matter of confirmations in obedience to what is called the "courtesy of the senate." (See
—5. The bribery laws, which now only make penal the use or promise of money, or of something of pecuniary value, to induce the violation of official duty, should be so extended as to clearly cover the much more frequent and pernicious abuse of giving, or promising to give, appointments in the public service for votes or influence.*60—6. The laws of 1820 and later statutes, which reduced the constitutional tenure (which was during efficiency and good behavior) of collectors, postmasters, surveyors and various other officers, to a term of four years—and thereby added to the spoils to be won in every presidential election and increased the evils connected with confirmations—should be repealed, and the constitutional tenure be thereby restored. The military school at West Point and the naval school at Annapolis were established to prepare for the public service those who should bring into it mental and physical qualifications of the highest order. Every consideration of duty, justice and public interest requires that selections for these schools should be made on the basis of free public competitions of merit, which are most certain to disclose those qualifications. But members of congress have made nearly all selections for those schools a part of their own official patronage. That abuse should be prohibited, and such competitions be established by law for the selection of military and naval cadets as they are now established by regulations for selecting cadet engineers for the navy.
—II. In considering the educational and constructive work of reform, there are some fundamental facts and principles, a clear apprehension of which is important both for the removal of misconceptions and for opening the way to those sound practical methods without which no adequate results are possible. Some of these principles are so simple and elementary that were they not habitually violated in our politics, their statement here could hardly be excused. 1. Public office is a public trust, created only for the common benefit; and there is no more right to exercise the power of appointment, promotion, discipline, or removal, no more right to give salaries or to require or allow the use of the time of officials needed for public work, for any private or party purposes, than there is to take and apply the money in the public treasury for such purposes. And the facts that this rule of duty is very generally disregarded with impunity, and that the great body of the people take little notice of the abuse—while the politicians habitually practice it under the claim of right—are ample evidence of the need of a better political education as one of the conditions of a thorough civil service reform.
—2. To appoint by favor a public officer known to be unworthy, to bestow an official place on the condition of work for a party or a chieftain, are higher offenses than to deposit public money in a bank known to be unsafe, or, by deliberate neglect, to allow public property to be destroyed; for, in the first cases, the pecuniary loss may be greater, while the bad example is at least equally corrupting, and it is far more seductive and permanent in its bad effects.
—3. In the exercise of the power of appointment, removal, promotion and discipline in the public service, there can be neither honest patronage nor justifiable discretion beyond this: that in every instance, it is the duty of the official to do that which, in his judgment, will most promote the general welfare, irrespective of relatives, friends or parties; and the public opinion which fails to condemn, and the official conscience which fails to feel the guilt of whatever conflicts with this rule, are a part of the causes of our political corruption and of the difficulties in the way of its removal.
—4. The acceptance of an official trust, or of a salary for serving the public, imposes upon the official moral and legal obligation as absolute to remain at his post of duty and to devote his time and skill to the public matters in his charge, as can rest upon an officer of a bank, or upon a person employed in any private business. There is, therefore, no more right in the one than in the other to desert his proper place of duty of the cares that need his attention, or to give his time and thoughts to partisan politics; and the marked difference in the conduct which we tolerate in public and private servants—allowing, for example, collectors, postmasters and other subordinates to desert their posts to manage politics—but illustrates a common responsibility for our abuses and the need of a more discriminating and exacting public opinion.
—5. It is not true, as president Jackson declared in a message, that every citizen has an equal right to office, but, on the contrary, the just claim of every citizen for a place in the public service is measured by the amount of character and capacity he may posses for the discharge of official functions. There can be no just discrimination between applicants on any other basis. He, therefore, who is best qualified—who can and will serve the people most usefully—has the highest claim; and it is the duty of those having the authority, to appoint or elect him rather than any other applicant.
—6. Experience in official duties increases the capacity to perform them well; and, as a general rule, increases the probability that they' will be best performed by the officer so long as his mental and physical abilities remain unimpaired. The right and interest of the people to have the public work well done are paramount to the claim of any citizen to an official place or of any party to have its favorites in office; and, therefore, any theory of short terms or rotation in office, which would turn out experienced and efficient public servants in order to make places for fresh claimants, is disastrous to the public interests.
—7. A stable tenure also strongly tends to bring good men into office, as well as to make them efficient while there; but the public interest requires that the period of holding office should depend upon both fidelity and efficiency; and therefore precludes a life tenure, and required a right and duty of removal for cause. And, in the case of legislative officers, who represent local interests and opinions liable to frequent changes, and of presidents, governors and some other high officials, who stand for the principles and policies on the basis of which they were elected, there is a manifest propriety in providing for short terms of office. (See
—8. The existence of such claims and duties, in connection with filling official places, plainly imposes upon the government the obligation of providing the best means practicable for ascertaining fit qualifications for entering the public service and for promotion in all its grades. The man among the applicants having the highest claim to office can only be ascertained by his proper examination in comparison with the others. To refuse that examination is to do injustice to the most meritorious. So long as there were no departments or great offices where the subordinates were too numerous to allow selections to be made by the officers at the head of them upon adequate personal examination as to fitness, no special instrumentality for that purpose was needed. They were so selected in the early periods of the government; but the inability to do so, in later years, by reason of the vastly increased numbers of officials—so numerous in many offices as not to be known by name or sight by those at their head, there being more than 3,000 in the treasury department alone, more than 1,300 in the New York custom house, and more than 1,100 in the New York city post-office—has greatly facilitated the supremacy of partisan and corrupt interests in their choice. Thus in justice and in sheer inability to avoid them, we find the need and the foundation of those examinations for admissions and promotions in the public service which every other leading nation has made a powerful agency, both for giving efficiency and purity to its public service and for stimulating the education of its people. But there are other elements involved in these examinations which we must consider.
—9. Political parties are both useful and inevitable under liberal institutions; and every theory of reforming the civil service is faulty and likely to fail to the extent that it interferes with their true sphere and activity. But parties are not ends in themselves, and can claim no rights or interests paramount to those of the people at large. To arouse, embody and express public opinion and sustain political principles and policies until they are made effective in laws, is the very object and end of a party. Hence, no party should be allowed to control the selection of any officials except those as to whom it can be shown that their sharing the views of that party will cause them to be better qualified to discharge their official functions and not less inclined to do so. Difficult, and doubtless impracticable as it may be, in the present state of public opinion, to completely enforce this rule, it is yet sound and useful as a standard, and its fit practical application is not difficult to point out.
—Members of legislative bodies are selected to represent the interest and opinions of their constituents, and for that reason their political principles are an essential part of their official qualifications. Governors and presidents being a part of the law-making power come within the same reasons. It is also an important part of their duties to carry into execution the policy and principles which the people have approved at their election, and in which, to secure their efficient execution, those high officers need to have faith. From the very nature of government these officers must be held under obligations to be faithful to such policy and principles, and hence to their party which upholds them, in so far at least as is compatible with the constitution and national safety. The spirit of this reasoning would include the members of the cabinet, such of the foreign ministers as may be put under instructions to carry out part of that policy abroad, and, perhaps, a few other high officials should also be included. In that small measure, if any, in which party politics may be involved in municipal affairs, the same reasoning would also include the mayors of cities.
—These higher officials have the authority and duty of instructing and securing obedience from all the grades of public servants below them, through whom such policy and principles are carried into effect and the public work is done. The subordinates must obey instructions, and should do the public work in the same way, whatever party may be in power. For these reasons their opinions are not material and are no qualifications for office It is a mere prostitution of the authority of government and a plain usurpation and oppression for a party, or its leader, to require that every postmaster, collector, bookkeeper, lighthouse tender, washerwoman and errand boy, in the service of the government, shall accept the opinions of the party in power or leave his place. There are very few among the vast numbers of subordinate officials—federal, state and municipal—who would not serve the people better if they recognized no party allegiance whatever, and, as a rule, they are bad public servants in the same degree that they are active partisans. For these reasons, no tests of political opinion are justifiable, in the selection, promotion or removal of these subordinates, but tests of personal fitness alone should be applied, irrespective of partisan politics. Such a rule would leave the true and honest sphere of parties undisturbed. They would still control the high affairs of the nation and guide all its great activities; their majorities enacting all laws, electing presidents and all governors, carrying their policy and principles into execution in every official place where they should be felt; commanding obedience from every servant of the government through the whole range of official life. All the strength and all the honor which can be the fruit of statesmen brought into high places, of wise laws and sound principles everywhere enforced of pure and vigorous administration everywhere exhibited before the eyes of the people—all these any party would, under such a merit system of office, be free to gain. Nothing would be lost to a party but partisan spoils—opportunities of removals without cause and of appointments without merit—money pillaged from the servants of the people, and voters bribed by the promise of places. If in some quarters there would be fewer inducements to partisan work and a less feverish political activity, it would not be on the part of those who act from a sense of duty or seek office by worthy means, but among those whose exertions, as things now are, are measured by their hopes of corrupt gain and their fear of losing places held at the mercy of others. The portion of our accustomed partisan work which might be left undone would be just that which is most useless, oppressive and corrupt; while true party vitality and efficiency would be strengthened rather than enfeebled, as the example of Great Britain has abundantly shown.
—10. There is, therefore, nothing in the just relations of parties which should prevent the test of personal fitness for the public service being made by examinations wherever examinations would be intrinsically appropriate. Now, examinations are by far the most important of all the special instrumentalities by which civil service reform may be advanced and the spoils system overthrown. They are, we repeat, manifestly inappropriate either in the case of elected officers or for the selection of any others whose political opinions are as we have seen material. And the need of examinations is manifestly much the greatest in those offices where the appointed officials are the most numerous and partisan pressure is the most formidable. They are also highly just and useful in most cases of promotions.
—After all proper limitations have been made, a vast body of the civil servants of the government, federal, state and municipal—those holding nearly all those official places which have been treated as spoils of partisan warfare—may be selected on the basis of qualifications which have been tested by thorough and just examinations. We have space for but the merest outline of their history; and it is quite impossible to give even a summary of the evidence which has demonstrated their great utility.
—It has been more than 40 years since they were found indispensable in Great Britain and in all the most enlightened European states. The abuses in the administration of Great Britain had, for the most part, been of the same nature as our own; but there, as in the other European states, they had been in various ways far more aggravated than with us. The kind and conditions of the first examinations, then provided for, were in several particulars defective and inadequate. Though from the first, as in all subsequent examinations, the object had been to secure such answers and information as would show not mere literary attainments, but whether, in capacity, information and character, the applicant was competent for the official place he sought, it was never the aim of those examinations to test personal accomplishments or knowledge not important in the public service. The original defects were of quite another sort. The first examinations were made independently, in each office, and but one person was examined at a time. This limited kind of examinations, which afforded no opportunity of comparing the merits of one applicant with another, were known as pass-examinations. The examiners had little direct support from high authority and were left separately exposed to the joint pressure of all those seeking office, backed by partisan members of parliament, patronage mongers, great politicians and great lords, who were hostile to every person and every method which stood in the way of the favorites and henchmen whom these champions of the British spoils system pushed for the vacant places. And what was yet more important, there were, at first, no provisions connected with the examinations, which prevented these same spoilsmen from selecting all the persons who were allowed to be examined, and, consequently, from excluding from all chances of entering the public service every one who was not among their favorites and henchmen. These causes were not only sufficient to keep the grade examinations far below the standard essential to thorough competency for the public work, but they allowed a monopoly of appointments. The old monopolists, therefore, still had it in their power to decide upon every person who should get an appointment, the examinations only serving to exclude a portion of the incompetents who had formerly freely entered. Yet even such examinations, in a few years, so greatly improved the quality of those who got places in Great Britain, that the examinations not only gained strength there, but they attracted attention in this country, and were made the basis of our federal statutes of 1853 and 1855, (now Rev. Stat. U. S., § 164), under which these defective examinations have since been required and conducted in the principal departments at Washington. Owing, however, to the rapid development of partisan supremacy and machine politics in this country, such examinations have been even more inadequate here than in Great Britain. Still they have excluded many of the most unworthy who were pushed upon the examiners, and have prevented yet more, who were office-seeking incompetents, from being presented at all. But they have allowed that despotic monopoly under which no man or woman, however worthy, could secure an examination without the consent and recommendation of some great politician or member of congress or other high official. And, generally, the potent monopolist granting the favor has been able to push his man past the members of the local board of examiners; the loss of whose place might be the consequence of rejecting a strongly backed dunce or henchman. For these reasons, partisan politicians have made very little objection to mere pass-examinations thus conducted.
—In Great Britain the pass-examinations speedily tended to make the old patronage and monopoly more conspicuous and consequently more odious. The high executive officers began to see and the people to feel that a great injustice was thus being done both to the public and to the most worthy applicants for office. They plainly saw that if the gates of the examinations were but freely opened and the spoils system gate tenders were ejected, the government could have its choice from among the great numbers who sought examinations for its service, and that the monopoly would at the same time be broken up. These causes soon led to the introduction of open competition, as it is called—that is, to examinations for the public service open and free to every applicant of proper age and apparent capacity, as the regulation should provide. To this rule of freedom and justice, making the consent of no official or party a condition of being recommended, there was added the provision that the appointments should be made from those showing the highest qualifications in the competition.
—These open competitive examinations began, in a very limited way, about 1850, and from the first their great superiority was manifest. Many persons were examined at the same time; and as the examinations were public, and the first and highest prizes would be gained by those showing the highest qualifications in the competition, and all who fell below a certain standard were to be excluded, the rivalry was naturally intense.
—In 1854-5 the British government made a thorough investigation and report concerning the best means of improving its civil service, which resulted in the appointment of a permanent civil service commission in 1855, with a duty of taking direct charge, under the executive, of the whole subject of examinations for admission to the public service and promotion therein; to which other analogous duties have been since added. Under that commission (which is still in vigorous operation, and one of the most vigorous and respected agencies of British administration), open competition was extended, uniformity and regularity were given to the examinations, and an authority was brought to their support which politicians could not overawe. Ample testimonials of good character, the truth of which could be investigated, were made the condition of being examined. But it was soon found that the publicity of the examinations, and the fact that every man, in the scale of the merit marks gained in them, was interested in exposing any defects in the character of any man above him, rarely failed to be sufficient to deter all persons of bad character from entering the competitive contest.—It was made a rule that no person should receive a formal appointment until his practical capacity and disposition had been tested by a probationary trial of six months, at the end of which, if not satisfactory, he was dropped.
—It hardly need be said that the new system encountered the fierce opposition of all partisans and patronage mongers, and especially that of members of parliament, whose long enjoyed patronage it threatened to take away. Wherever the new system was applied it was fatal to the old monopoly. Any young man or woman could go and be examined without the favor or consent, or even the knowledge, of any officer, politician, nobleman or bishop.
—The reform was also powerfully opposed for reasons which do not exist in this country. For it enabled the sons and daughters of the common people to work their way to places in those parts of the public service which had for centuries past been monopolized by the sons and dependents of the aristocracy. It said a man's right to an office depended on merit and not on birth or opinions. Open competition is in spirit and principle thoroughly democratic and republican; because it rests on character and equal rights; and to allow it to bring the promising sons of the middle and humbler classes into the subordinate places, from which, through competition for promotion, they might rise to the higher, would soon develop a dangerous element in an old aristocratic monarchy. These fears have been shown to be well founded; for the great body of those whom competition has given places in British service, have been the worthier and more intelligent sons of the middle and lower classes, whose education had been obtained in the public schools and academies.
—But even this kind of resistance, united with that of the partisans and the patronage mongers, was overcome in less than 20 years. Superior men entered the public service. The public mind appreciated the justice and utility of the new merit system of office holding, and rejoiced. It gladly saw the old spoils system undermined, and aristocratic and partisan monopoly broken up. Members of parliament lost their patronage, and became ashamed to battle against open competition as they had formerly done. Lords and bishops could no longer get places for their sons except through victory in open competition. Popular education was greatly stimulated. A demand for free, open competition throughout the public service, and for popular education sustained by general taxation, grew vigorously together; and in the same year—1870—both these results were achieved in Great Britain. In no decade in our history has popular education so rapidly advanced as in Great Britain since 1870. Since that date there have been no partisan polities and no monopoly of the privilege of examination in her public service, but open competition for appointments, and in all proper cases competitive examinations for promotion also. There is now hardly more politics in the customs, internal revenue or consular services of the British empire, than in the regular army or in the colleges. The new system has also been extended to her naval and military schools, to the militia, and is now being applied to banks and great business corporations.
—The great postoffice has long applied the same competitive methods which so greatly aided Mr. James in reforming the postal service at New York city. The expense of revenue collection is far less than with us. The consular service is greatly superior to that of this country. Subordinate places in the public service no longer depend upon the result of an election. Removals are made only for cause; except that the fate of the cabinet and that of a few other high officers—hardly 50 in all—are involved in the elections. Beyond the selection of his private clerk, not even the head of a department, or a member of the cabinet, can make an appointment, except from the most worthy, among those who have openly competed before the civil service commission. As a consequence the public service has taken a far higher place in public estimation, and the abuses which had prevailed are almost unknown.
—It is worthy of special notice that these results have been attained without injuring the vigor or utility of political parties, or lessening the interest which all good citizens take in the party to which they belong. On the contrary, since 1870, party contests have been as vigorous and absorbing in Great Britain, as in any period in her history, and more than ever before they have turned upon great principles and been decided by appeals to the reason and to the conscience of the people. In that time the elective franchise has been repeatedly extended, and more voters have gone to the polls than ever before. Yet hardly more than 50 official places, except seats in parliament, but only the triumph of great party principles, depended on the result of the election.
—The merit system of appointments and promotions thus established in the British civil service, and a more vivid sense of the peril of our spoils system, and of the inadequacy of mere pass-examinations to remove them, led to an enactment in March, 1871, which authorized the president to cause the proper means to be taken for ascertaining the fitness of candidates in respect of age, health, character, knowledge and ability for entering the public service; to make rules for its regulation; and in effect, to create a civil service commission to take charge of the examination and aid the work of reform under the president's discretion.
—Under that law president Grant appointed such a commission, which still exists. Through that commission he instituted open, competitive examinations in the departments at Washington at the beginning of 1872; although there had been a competitive examination conducted in the city of New York (by Silas W. Burt, Esq., the present naval officer at that place), in March, 1871, the earliest example of the kind in this country.
—Such examinations were, soon after their introduction at Washington, but in a most faulty and imperfect manner, conducted at the custom house in New York city. It hardly need be said that they were fiercely opposed by the machine politicians of that state; yet collector Arthur officially reported their useful effects. This new method of getting into the public service, and of promotion in it, which here, as in Great Britain, allowed any man or woman of proper age and apparent capacity to be examined, without the consent of a politician or a patronage monger, had no sooner begun to be efficient at Washington, by taking away patronage and spoils and securing appointments for the most meritorious, than all the old monopolists, every member of congress who had promised places for votes, party leaders whose control of patronage is their strength and their hope—all the partisan mercenaries whose chances of selling themselves were in peril—united to embarrass, misrepresent and overthrow it. The experience of England was repeated in the nature of that opposition; except that president Grant, having little of the spirit of a reformer, did not, like lord Palmerston and Mr. Gladstone, stand firmly by the new system; but after considerable resistance, yielded to the opposition of members of congress and the great politicians. He had prohibited political assessments, but failed to take any fit measure for enforcing his regulation. It is but justice to president Grant, however, to say that he repeatedly requested appropriations for carrying on the work under the commission, which the partisan and patronage-mongering members of congress refused to make, though they had neither courage to conduct a debate or to record the ayes and nays upon the question. He informed congress that the new methods had "given persons of superior character and capacity to the service," * * and "that they had developed more energy in the discharge of duty"; and he finally declared in his last message on the subject that "it would be a source of mortification to himself and those associated with him in enforcing the civil service rules," if congress should refuse to make the further appropriation which he asked in aid of the work. His request (opposed by Mr. Conkling) was in vain. Congress refused all appropriation after 1874, and president Grant suspended the rules early in 1875 (thus apparently suppressing the reform). This action of congress is in humiliating contrast with that of the British parliament, under analogous circumstances, ten years earlier, which voted the appropriation requested by the British executive and has continued them without a dissenting vote within the last eight or nine years. It, however, soon became apparent that the demand for reform had all the time been gaining strength among a thoughtful class in both the great parties. The example of competitive examinations encouraged the responsible executive officers, in self-defense, to make the old pass or limited examinations—to which the government had reverted in 1875—somewhat more efficient. Public opinion speedily forced the civil service question into the foreground of politics. The national conventions of both parties, in 1875, made strong pledges in favor of reform, however reluctantly or insincerely that portion of their platforms was adopted.
—During the term of president Hayes the cause of reform made considerable progress, though it was very unequally sustained. In various particulars, for which he deserves the gratitude of the country, he resolutely and persistently exercised his authority for the removal of abuses and for the enforcement of better methods of administration. His messages on the subject of reform are of permanent value. Little was done, practically, under him for suppressing political assessments, though they were strongly condemned in his message. Contrary to the first conditions of reform and to the spirit of the act of 1871, already cited, each head of a department was, apparently, allowed to have his own way as to examinations, promotions and removals; and the competitive methods were applied only in the office of the secretary of the interior, where they contributed to the great success with which Mr. Schurz administered his department.
—A well intended order of president Hayes for preventing interference with elections and party politics on the part of federal officials, through being too sweeping and radical and not being vigorously supported, in great measure failed of useful results. In a subsequent message he laid down the true rule on the subject. President Hayes gave open and steady support to Mr. James and to the reforms which were carried forward in the postoffice at New York city, where the method of open competition was pretty thoroughly tested and with the most salutary results.
—In consequence, that postoffice has ceased to be a political office. At a less cost, within the past few years, a third more business has been done than under the last years of the partisan spoils system. Mail deliveries have been made a third more frequent, scandals have ceased, and the office gives a public satisfaction never known in former years. Its administration has become as good as that of the best British postoffice and superior to every other in this country. Mr. James has won a national reputation which has made him postmaster general under president Garfield. But the greatest administrative work for which the country is indebted to president Hayes has been the reform instituted in the custom house at New York city. The principles of this were at the same time extended to the naval office and that of the surveyor and appraiser at that place. The obstructions interposed by Mr. Conkling, the republican senator from New York, through appealing to the courtesy of the senate, delayed the appointment of a new collector, and consequently the enforcement of open competition, until the beginning of 1879, when it was established, and continued to the end of Mr Hayes' administration. Our space does not permit any detailed statement of the results, but the improvement of the administration was very great. Abuses and scandals rapidly subsided. The revenue was collected at less expense and with more satisfaction to the public than ever before. Custom house officials gave more attention to their business and less to partisan politics. Superior men were brought into the customs service, and promotions in it, as well as admissions to it, were made on the basis of a competition of merit. The questions asked on the examinations covered the practical qualifications for the public work, and caused nearly all the appointments to fall to those who had the common education of the intelligent citizen united with aptitude for business. No removals were made but for cause; being about 50 in all in two years; yet the party whose president resolutely sustained the reform, carried New York in 1880, though it had been lost in 1876, after the relapse of the spoils system under president Grant. The national conventions of both parties, in 1880, again declared the duty of reforming the civil service. But up to this date (July, 1881) the administration of president Garfield has done no act and made no declaration which makes its policy on the subject of civil service reform very clear. The interior department has not followed the example of Mr. Schurz. The collector, the naval officer and the new postmaster at New York have gone steadily forward enforcing the merit system, with open competition at their respective offices. It is not possible yet to say whether the appointment of Mr. Robertson, the new collector at that city, is to be favorable or unfavorable to the cause of reform, or what record president Garfield's administration is likely to make on the subject. But, in the meantime, the resignation of the two senators of New York, because their claim to control appointments from that state was not admitted, and the attempt, by a disappointed office seeker, to take the life of the president, have made a profound and painful impression upon the public mind which can hardly fail to lead to important results in favor of administrative reform in the not remote future; there being, at this time, more attention given to the subject of reform than ever before in this country.
—In estimating the utility of competitive examinations in the service, these two considerations should be kept in mind: first, that they substitute a public competition of capacity, attainments and character for an otherwise secret and inevitable competition of partisan and official influence, of solicitation, of threats, and of selfish interests. And second, that while on the only true foundation of equal rights in the matter of office, they reduce the whole matter of getting into the subordinate public service to a procedure of great simplicity and justice in which capacity and character are decisive. Any one wishing to enter the public service can have his qualifications tested by a fair public method. From among a few of those shown to be the most worthy, the selections are to be made under fixed rules. The official having the appointing power can say to every importunate applicant and to his backers: Go into the examination; if you show yourself among the most worthy, you may get an appointment in due time. If you are not among them, you deserve no place. That is all I can do for you. Office seeking is thus defeated by being made futile. The merits of the applicant, and not his begging, his threats or the pressure of his backers, is what must give him a place. Hence the new system has been fitly called the merit system, as contrasted with the spoils system.
—If the applicant is defeated, the causes clearly appear in the records of his examination, which are preserved and may be any time referred to. Any man who may complain of partiality or corruption can have the truth of the charge at any time investigated.
—The enforcement of the merit system presents the government before the people as seeking and rewarding the most worthy; as rejecting intrigue and refusing to be overborne by threats or persuasion; as encouraging education and inviting young men and women to seek places in its service on the strength of their own qualifications and not through subserviency to great politicians.
—We have no space for citing any part of the overwhelming evidence at hand—both English and American—which proves that such a system not only gives the most reliable and efficient public servants, but enables the public administration to be carried on with far greater purity and economy than under the old system. The six months' probation before actual appointment excludes the applicants—if any shall have passed the competition successfully—who are found wanting in practical ability for work. Men, who thus win their places by their own merits, are not servile partisans, nor have they incurred in securing them any obligation to chieftains, members of congress or partisan bodies, for the discharge of which they need to pledge a part of their salaries or to prostitute the authority of their offices, as is more or less the case with nearly every official who gets his position through favor, solicitation and subserviency. An experience of about 25 years in British India, where the highest executive capacity is essential, and of more than half that period in the British departments at home, has proved that open competitive examinations with probation, as explained, secures the best practical talent and fills the lower places with men worthy and sure to rise, by promotion, to the higher, with immense gain both to the efficiency and economy of the administration.
DORMAN B. EATON.
Notes for this chapter
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