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Evolution and Characteristics of the U.S. Civil Service System Reform


Gao Shaohan

The history of the civil service system in the United States can be traced back to the establishment of the federal government, which marks the beginning of the first civil servant program. Throughout the centuries, it has undergone numerous changes and adaptations, reflecting the values and needs of American society. Today, it stands as a leading example of a capitalist nation’s civil service system, making it an essential area of study for scholars and policymakers alike.

The Evolution of the American Civil Service System

Since the establishment of the federal government, American civil servants have been generally categorized into three historical eras; the patronage system era, the pork barrel era, and the merit system era.

The patronage system era   

In countries where the patronage system is implemented, those in power usually use their status as national civil servants or official positions as “favors” to their relatives and friends. This is a method of allocating public servants that has not yet broken away from feudalism and is full of disadvantages. Therefore, the patronage system was generally implemented from Washington to John Adams’s term, and ended with Andrew Jackson.

The pork barrel era   

During the period of pork barrel, the appointment of American civil servants had not yet been institutionalized. Starting from Andrew Jackson, successive American  presidents have been guided by political patronage and appointed U.S. civil servants based on the “Pork Barrel”. That is, after a candidate of a certain party is elected, the party members and those who helped in the election will receive Public positions.

In 1832, U.S. William Marcy, a senator from New York, said “to the victor belongs the spoils of victory,” perfectly summing up the starting point and purpose of pork barrel. The shortcomings of such a civil servant appointment and removal system are evident. First of all, this induced the political participation of a large number of speculators, making the negative traits of unmatched moral integrity and difficulty in performing duties prevalent among the American civil servants at that time.

Furthermore, the purpose of political speculators is clear – to seek benefits for themselves by “betting” on the election of a certain president as a public official. Thus, corruption among U.S. public servants was rampant during the pork barrel period. It was not until the Pendleton Act enacted in 1883 that the political spoils system was suspended.

The merit system era 

The merit system has persisted from the promulgation of the Pendleton Act to the present day, emblematic of America’s basic paradigm for the civil service system. The two charters of fundamental documentary nature, the Pendleton Act of 1883 and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 have together sculpted the basic architecture of a merit system’s developmental framework.

As government scale and organizational structure become increasingly complex, most people concurred that the appointment of civil servant positions in the United States must no longer be carried out with such simplicity.

The assassination of President Garfield by an unemployed man in 1881 directly led to the “Pendleton Act”, which marked the birth of the American civil service system. The law distinguished the nature of official positions and clarified the duties of civil servants; it also determined the use of open competitive examinations as the selection method and established the principle of merit-based admissions.

It established the Civil Service Commission and its creation process and terms of reference were legally confirmed. The creation of the civil service system only established the core principles of the merit system in legal form. This is a gradual expansion process. During this process, the scope of employment through competitive examinations gradually expanded, and those hired gradually became the majority. Government professional agencies also gradually started the earliest civil servant training activities, personnel administration projects, salary principles, and other related systems, and Standards were also gradually established during this period.

From the birth of the merit system to 1978, the American civil service system went through a period of development. In the late 1930s, as the “political and administrative dichotomy” further matured, the civil service system entered this stage. The vision of system construction expanded to the entire career process. With the establishment of the personnel department, personnel administration gained many new aspects. Veterans, job classification, incentive award projects, etc. gradually emerged and established, and the professionalism, scale, and systematization level of the civil service system have been significantly improved.

After the 1950s, the U.S. civil service system further transformed into a comprehensive modern personnel management system, maximizing the use of management tools to achieve the mission of federal government agencies. With the expansion of the work scope of the Civil Service Commission and agency personnel management departments, a series of related New laws and regulations are being introduced one after another, and the management environment is increasingly optimized.

During the reform period after 1978, the U.S. civil service system gradually matured and modernized through the reforms of several governments. At this stage, the motivations for reform can be divided into two aspects: external factors and internal factors.

External factors

The market and competitive globalization brought about by economic globalization pose greater challenges to government capabilities. Improving government capabilities has become a key factor affecting the United States’ global competitiveness and international status improvement. Individual civil servants and their management systems work together and influence each other. Therefore, how to avoid waste, and provide training and innovation has become the key to facing fierce competition.

At the same time, informatization and technological revolution have also had an impact on the civil service system, and The shortening of time and space distance has greatly increased the speed of information circulation. The reduction of intermediate links has become a necessary area for reform. People hope to see a scientific, reasonable, flexible, and efficient organizational structure; the trend of modern democratization in the United States is also constantly advancing.

The increased political responsiveness of civil servants has had a greater impact on the previously highly bureaucratic civil service system. During the same period, to survive and develop in the competition, private enterprises in the United States established efforts to break the traditional system model of hierarchies, centralized power, and tight control, which exerted great pressure and demonstrated effect on the reform of the government civil service system.

Internal factors

The rigidity and inertia brought about by the permanent system of civil servants in the United States are the primary problems that need to be solved. This not only results in the loss of pioneering capabilities and the reduction of enterprising spirit but also proves that the US government’s personnel system needs to be more flexible.

Secondly, the principle of the merit system is bound by complex rules, and its low efficiency makes the merit system more of a symbolic value; and the principle of absolute political neutrality has also been widely questioned. Civil servants have high professionalism due to their expertise, they are more familiar with policy business than administrative officers, which asserts that they are not affected by politics is extremely unrealistic.

Finally, overly strict rules make the entire civil service system lack vitality, and the alienation of rules hinders organizational performance.

In the late 1970s, during President Carter’s administration, with the expansion of the government’s public management functions, the public affairs managed by the government tended to become more complicated, and there were evident problems with management efficiency and effectiveness. With the functional provisions of the Pendleton Act, issues such as management procedures and job allocation are becoming increasingly prominent.

After taking office, President Carter proposed a plan to reorganize the federal government, established a “Federal Personnel Management Project Team” to specifically reform the civil service system, and passed the “Civil Service Reform Act of 1978”. Its main contents cover the following aspects:

First, the reorganization of the civil service management organization was determined, and three federal government agencies were decentralized to take charge of civil service affairs, and established two new agencies, the Office of Government Ethics and the Office of Special Advice, to ensure that ethical principles are respected and strictly implemented. Secondly, nine principles of the merit system were established. Regard it as the foundation and core value of the civil service system. Furthermore, the reform established a relatively independent senior civil service system, and implemented a series of related policies involving job transfers and rewards; at the same time, the merit pay system for middle-level civil servants abolished the traditional performance appraisal system and established effective new systems and regulations. During the Carter administration, many new measures were also proposed to promote talent selection, job security, and other aspects.

During the reform period of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Reagan administration implemented a series of measures to improve the efficiency of the federal government after taking office, such as performance management, the promulgation of the Federal Employees Retirement System(FERS), and further regulations and legalization of vacation policies and systems. An important statute was also enacted during the Bush administration, namely the Whistleblower Protection Act. Both administrations saw reforms and adjustments to the merit-based commissions and the federal civil service system.

After Clinton took office in 1993, he implemented the administrative reform of “reshaping the government”, which was another major public personnel reform since the establishment of the U.S. federal government’s civil service system. The traditional civil service system in the United States has lagged behind the times and is becoming increasingly rigid. Over-centralized and unified management and complex regulations have gradually made the system inactive, which will seriously affect the government’s governance efficiency.

Clinton’s reform followed four major principles, namely, from process-oriented to result-oriented; from centralized management to authorized management; from rigid rule management to flexible management; and from obedient management to incentive management; Clinton reformed the traditional and complex employment system, including its position planning, authority system, employment categories, and electronic system construction have been reformed and innovated.

The adjustment of job classification, salary system reform, and performance evaluation reform have empowered the civil service system, which can not only give full play to the initiative of employees but also facilitate the performance of the government civil service system and public management functions, providing great power and a solid guarantee.

During George W. Bush’s term, he proposed a government reform plan to “improve federal government management and performance strategies” and prioritized civil service reform among the five basic issues. Based on the changing trends over time, we consider and deal with issues such as employees, talent competition, and lack of information on manpower planning. The George W. Bush administration set four strategic principles for institutional transformation, namely “maintain basic concepts, implement maximum flexibility, exploit economies of scale, and ensure cooperation and coordination.”

The George W. Bush administration reformed agencies following citizen-centered principles, promoted transformation by expanding flexible policies and piloting new systems, implemented strategic human capital management that was integrated with agency missions, and further reformed special systems such as compensation and performance management.

To sum up, the reform of the U.S. civil service system shows that the rules tend to be simplified and flexibility is enhanced. At the same time, during the reform, the federal government paid attention to the compatibility of job classification and taste classification, while the realization of authorized management and emphasis on performance management is significant in bearing operational mechanisms. It has had an important impact on the working mechanism; the introduction of human resource management technologies and methods and the dilution of the Yongye principle have also brought more vitality to the civil service system.

The Characteristics of the American Civil Service System

The American civil service is dualistic. As one of the most typical federal countries, the government of the United States has two main entities: state governments and the federal government. Therefore, the American civil service system also naturally has a duality that changes with the government entities. The duality here includes both heterogeneity and similarity.

The duality of the U.S. civil service system is highlighted in the differences between state and federal governments in the selection and appointment of civil servants, and this has led to the difference between the concentration and breadth of professional knowledge between federal and local civil servants in the United States.

As for the federal government, it has a complete set of examination standards and operating procedures based on law. Standardized operations enable the federal government’s civil service examination to have a high degree of credibility while ensuring the professional standards of talents to a certain extent; at the same time, the selection of state government civil servants in the United States uses the appointment method. In terms of examination and selection standards, each state has independent standards based on its own needs and does not interfere with each other.

Some local civil servants are selected through appointment only and there is no examination process. This makes U.S. state government civil servants more specialized in a specific field, playing a role similar to “city managers” in most scenarios. Of course, the duality here does not refer to absolute contradiction. There is also considerable homogeneity in the civil service of the two political entities.

Since modern times, both the federal and state governments of the United States have pursued the continuity and stability of their government and civil servants, and have taken maximum measures to ensure the high quality and level of their civil servants.

The U.S. civil service is politically neutral. The political neutrality of the U.S. civil service system means that U.S. civil servants are not allowed to participate in the election process of the two domestic parties, that is, they can only choose between civil servant status and political party activities. This very American feature was formed in the Pendleton Act of 1883 – political neutrality was written into law as a civil service principle. In actual political participation practice, the political neutrality that U.S. civil servants need to “passively” accept has, to a large extent, guaranteed the normal operation of the U.S. civil service system.

It is easy to see that the neutrality of civil servants protected by law protects them from political struggles and the political opposition of their chief executives, and to a certain extent reduces efficiency, corruption, and other problems caused by internal struggles. At the same time, political neutrality also effectively eliminates the problem of poor government stability caused by the continuous replacement of civil servants in the United States due to the elections of the two parties.

However, political neutrality as an ideal form also has drawbacks. Due to the current party system in the United States and the reality of the separation of powers, political neutrality also faces difficulties in actual practice. This echoes the homogeneity within the duality of the American civil service mentioned above.

The American civil service system is characterized by the separation of two kinds of state power. The separation of officialdom means dividing state power into political power and administrative power. In 1877, the President of the United States issued an order officially applying the separation of official duties to its civil service system. Based on this, civil servants in the United States began to be divided into two categories, “government civil servants” and “business civil servants.” In the “Pendleton Act” of 1883, the separation of officialdom was confirmed at the legal level.

Government civil servants are usually elected or politically appointed. They are responsible to voters and work with the president. As the election progresses, changes in government civil servants also proceed. Civil servants in the administrative category are appointed through open examinations and selections. There is no term limit for the civil servants themselves and they can continue to serve as long as they do not violate the rules. Of course, civil servants in the administrative department need to strictly abide by the principle of political neutrality.


*The author is affiliated with the Department of Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs Management, at the China Foreign Affairs University and can be reached at 1057055302@qq.com

**The information presented in this report has been compiled from the author’s analysis of sources. The accuracy and completeness of the information herein are the responsibility of the author.

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