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Howard's Daily: Civil Service Has Died. Long Live the Merit System.

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What single reform would most improve government? While there are many candidates--sunset laws and gerrymandering reform come to mind--probably the single most influential change would be to scrap the current civil service system and replace it with a genuine merit system.

Government employees are basically unmanageable. That's the unavoidable conclusion of a new report by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen. The dry language of the report cannot disguise a reality that would drive any manager to despair. Labyrinthian hiring procedures are "a mystery" that prevent managers from picking people who might do the job, and drive good people away from public service. Rigid policies "encourage long-term tenure" and are "a burden on government that needs to encourage flexibility and innovation." Accountability is nonexistent: "employees and managers view performance management as a paperwork exercise, an annual necessary evil that has little effect on their working lives."

The bottom line is that the civil service system is "increasingly obsolete." "Top performers seldom receive sufficient rewards, poor performers are rarely fired or demoted, and managers are not held accountable ... for the outcomes."

Let's pause for a second here. How government works, as with any enterprise, is largely dependent on the skill, energy, and judgment of its employees. Today, government can't hire the best people, has little flexibility in managing them, and can't reward the good ones or punish the bad ones. As a result, the culture in many government offices is dreary and depressed. These are not the conditions for effective government.

Public service should be honored, not treated as a stagnant backwater. That requires public employees to be treated as professionals--given real responsibility (not smothered by dense bureaucracy) and held accountable for their performance. The original idea of the "merit system" (the Pendleton Act of 1883) was that neutral hiring would avoid the abuses of the spoils system, but that public employees would still be accountable for their performance. There was no presumption of tenure. As one of the reform leaders, George William Curtis, put it, "If the front door [is] properly tended, the back door [will] take care of itself."

Fixing civil service is not hard, at least in concept. Give much more flexibility in hiring and management (still avoiding spoils), simplify all the civil service categories, and replace endless litigation over termination with a streamlined "one-stop-shop" oversight process, as recommended by the Partnership for Public Service. 

The challenge is to build public pressure. I think that will require a more detailed expose of the inefficiencies and drudgeries of life inside the beast. Americans can be made to care about this. Over 2 million civilians work for the federal government. Over 20 million work for government at all levels. The federal civil service is a model of efficiency compared with many state and local governments. New York City has over a thousand civil service classifications, encumbered by so many rules and rights that many employees spend more time figuring out what the rules require than doing their jobs. 

To put this opportunity in dollar terms, the total salaries and benefits of federal, state, and local public employees amounts to about $1.5 trillion, requiring on average $15,000 in taxes per American family. If the effectiveness of public employees were improved by 20%, that's an annual savings (or improved performance) per family of $3,000. 

To put the opportunity in terms of a functioning democracy, just imagine if government attracted some of the best young people, and if mean-spirited or lazy public employees were drummed out, and if most public employees had a sense of personal responsibility and pride.

Democracy requires a genuine merit system, not a stagnant personnel bureaucracy wallowing in rigidities and entitlements.

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