A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 18, 1999
CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240
CIVIL SERVICE KEEPS PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT PRACTICES CIVIL
Assassinations are tumultuous events in history because they have the
potential to change its course. A disgruntled actor ended the life of the
great Abraham Lincoln who was about to write a new chapter of history with
"malice towards none." A gunshot fired into the car of Archduke Ferdinand
in 1914 and plunged the world into one of the most gruesome wars it had
Despite these tragic examples, there is a case where something
positive indirectly resulted from an assassination. The story is about
James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, whose brief
term was consumed by a controversy involving political appointments.
Garfield was gunned down by a disappointed office seeker, and strangely,
his murder proved to be a catalyst for change. Reformers charged that the
system of patronage that dominated civil service had killed Garfield, and
cried out for clean government.
Patronage had grown out of Jacksonian democracy and the rise of
mass-based political parties. Jackson's fight against government
aristocracy bolstered the new parties, opening the door for upward
mobility. In the new party system citizens could find a place in politics
so long as they were loyal. Working for party "machines," loyalists were
required to devote both time and money to the interests of political
"bosses." "Patrons" worked vigorously to get the candidate elected, and
upon victory the team would be rewarded with government jobs.
Problems arose in the mid 1800s when rival Whigs and Democrats (and
later, Republicans) essentially traded power every other year. Winning
parties purged members of the losing party and replaced them with loyalists,
giving meaning to the phrase, "to the victor go the spoils." This meant
that government workers often had no qualifications other than their party
loyalty. Coupled with the fact that public office was a revolving door, it
was all but impossible to carry out effective and efficient public policy.
Furthermore, much of the workday was devoted to bolstering the politician's
image, rather than carrying out the duties of the post. This fostered the
view that government was a corrupt conglomeration of party bosses and
henchmen driven by greed and favoritism.
Such a negative image sparked a movement for change. In 1865, an
effort to fill non-policymaking positions by candidates who scored well on
competitive examinations was proposed in Congress. "Merit" and not loyalty
would have been the new standard of public service. Based on equal
opportunity, a system was devised to ensure that posts be staffed by
qualified, non-partisan bureaucrats instead of party hacks. The effort was
defeated, however, and it was not until the assassination of Garfield in
1881 that reformers could finally do something. Riding on the coattails of
the national tragedy, Congress passed the Pendelton Act in 1883,
establishing the Civil Service Commission whose function was to dampen
political influence by conducting examinations of public job seekers.
The Pendelton Act transformed the face of public service. By the
early 20th century, many civil servants were well educated professionals
who were hired on the basis of qualifications rather than "connections."
Government jobs, both federal and state, became stable and rewarding means
of employment, and have continued to be into the present day.
In 1884, Massachusetts embraced the reformist ideology by enacting its
own civil service laws which promoted objectivity and fairness by
distinguishing the most qualified applicants on the basis of merit.
Chapter 31 of the General Laws seeks to curb illicit corruption by
mandating that employees be "protected against coercion for political
purposes," and "arbitrary and capricious actions." This chapter also
outlines the "Basic Merit Principles" that guide the selection, promotion,
training, compensation, and discipline of civil servants, and defines the
Civil Service Commission, which is responsible for maintaining the system's
integrity. All of these measures enhance the effectiveness of the civil
service core by liberating it from the clutches of politics.
Our civil service system has greatly profited from the changes begun
in the 19th century and continues to work well. Regardless, the system
still comes under constant attack. As Chairman of Public Service, I am
constantly faced with special legislation and home rule petitions that seek
to abrogate many well intentioned procedures and exempt individuals or
positions from civil service requirements. We are hesitant to pass this
legislation because even the smallest exception be a crack in the dam.
Once this crack grows, the entire floodgates will come crashing down,
drowning our civil service laws.
Through the years, the need of the state to carry out its many duties
and responsibilities has demanded that the Commonwealth employs a wide
array of skilled personnel. Whether it is monitoring earthquakes or
enforcing traffic laws, our scope of civil service is remarkable. Yet, in
spite of the size of its civil service core, the state is very selective
because of the serious nature of government work. The merit procedures,
while arguably not "foolproof," do assist government in the difficult task
of selecting candidates. By selecting the most qualified applicants by
what they know and not who they know, we foster a sustainable, fair system
geared towards maximizing efficiencies and diversities.
Understandably, the system is not perfect and may need tweaking in
order to keep up with changing job descriptions and duties. Indeed, civil
service should develop to reflect the vocations and procedures of today.
The solution, however, should be systemic reform rather than selective
dismantling. Otherwise we risk resurrecting the same abominable practices
that permeated the 19th century. It is unwise to disregard the laws and
destroy the system we have taken so long to build. To do so would be to
bring us back to the days of bosses and machines, forgetting that "civil"
society is ruled by laws and not men.