The Present State of Civil Service Reform.


EVERAL younger members of the National Civil Service Reform League have asked me to express at this annual meeting my views on the progress and present state of our cause. I shall do so briefly and with that frankness and impartiality which have always been characteristic of the utterances of our League, and without which, in fact, the League cannot expect to maintain its usefulness. I shall confine myself to a very few points of vital importance.

I think it is no exaggeration to say that the cause of civil service reform has by this time substantially accomplished the conquest of public opinion in this country. The theoretical discussion of the question, whether the merit system or the spoils system is to be preferred as to its effect upon the honesty and efficiency of the public service, as well as upon our political life generally, may be considered as closed. The intelligence of the country, enlightened by practical experience, has, I think, pronounced its judgment in favor of the merit system so overwhelmingly that further argument of a speculative nature seems no longer needed.

I will not say that there are not politicians left who, seeking to build up political machines or to reward henchmen and finding the merit system in their way, will denounce it as a nuisance; or office-seekers who, unable to pass a civil service examination, find the competition rule woefully un-American. Of course, there are, and always will be, such interested objectors. But their objections have, in the face of experience, lost what moral authority they once had. Even that appeal to indolent conservatism which at the beginning of the reform movement was so dangerously effective and discouraging — I mean the argument that, while civil service reform might be a good and desirable thing, the spoils system was so deeply imbedded in the political habits and ways of thinking of the American people that the attempt to uproot it was utterly hopeless — has, because of its evident futility, fallen into disuse and almost disappeared from people's memory. It may, therefore, be confidently asserted that civil service reform is now so firmly established as to have little to fear from the opponents who assailed it from without. If it is threatened by any dangers at all, they are dangers within.

What I mean by dangers within is that the practical administration of the merit system may be such as to nullify the objects which the system is to serve, or to forfeit the public confidence in the integrity of its conduct by admitting into it the element of arbitrary favor or partiality.

How great that danger is was strikingly exemplified by the administration of the civil service law under President McKinley. With Mr. McKinley's entrance into power in 1897, the Presidency passed from one party to another. The run for office was enormous. The President found himself exposed to a pressure to withstand which an uncommonly strong power of resistance was required. He was, no doubt, in point of principle, in favor of civil service reform, and for a considerable time he stood firm it its defence. He did it some good turns, as for instance, by the abolition of the secrecy of removals, which is gratefully remembered. But his kindly nature would not let him close his ears to the importunities of those of his political friends who were bitterly opposed to the merit system and sought to compass its destruction. I am far from saying that his administration gratified or even tried to gratify all the demands of the office-seekers of his party, for many of them vociferously clamored for nothing less than the total abolition of the merit system, or at least the competitive feature of it. But he permitted a practice of beating the civil service law, which, in its ulterior consequences, would have become equally destructive — far more destructive than the withdrawal from the classified service of some thousands of places which he ordered.

The rules were artfully honeycombed with little loopholes through which spoils politics could slip into the classified service, almost unperceived, except to the interested party, or to the experienced watcher, and possibly unappreciated by the President; and these facilities were so largely taken advantage of that the number of those who entered the service through the door of regular competition appeared materially encroached upon by the dodgers. But more than this. Hardly anybody was ever punished or seriously held to account for ever so flagrant a breach of the civil service law, and appointing officers came to understand that they could do pretty much as they pleased, which not a few of them did, as if not civil service law had been in existence. I need not go into detail, for the facts are sufficiently well known to the members of this League, the officers of which were kept busy remonstrating and protesting, but without avail. In short, the service was sadly demoralized, and it is not too much to say that, had these practices and conditions become permanent, the merit system would eventually be reuined by them. It is not to be believed that President McKinley, who, like many others, probably favored civil service reform in a general way without having a perfectly distinct idea of its essential requirements, was clearly aware of the havoc which his inclination to accommodate his party friends was working; but certain it is that since the enactment of the civil service law the merit system never passed through a period of more insidious peril than it did during that administration which was professedly its friend.

President Roosevelt's accession to power promptly brought on a marked change for the better. Having long been a militant champion of civil service reform, he at once recognized the threatening danger, and one after another he stopped the loopholes and closed the backdoors which, under his predecessor, had been opened to the invasion of spoils politics. Not only that. By some removals or other drastic discipline of offenders against the letter or spirit of the civil service law, he let the officers of the government know that this law was not a mere harmless scarecrow, but a law with teeth and claws that must not be trifled with. Indeed, in some instances, as in the case of the Postmasters of Philadelphia and of New York, sterner action would have been highly desirable. But this is a matter of comparatively small moment in view of the unquestionable fact that, not only by making large and valuable additions to the classified service, but still more by undoing the mischievous practices which had crept into the administration of the civil service law, and by restoring discipline and infusing a wholesome spirit of loyalty into the whole service, President Roosevelt has greatly strengthened the reform cause and prepared it for new onward movement.

It is, therefore, with full confidence in the President's purposes as a civil service reformer that I invite attention to a practice which has recently sprung up, and which challenges examination. I mean the practice of suspending civil service rules in individual cases when a strict enforcement of them would seem to carry personal hardship with it or to be more or less prejudicial to the best interests of the service itself. The frequent occurrence of such cases of late has attracted public notice and given rise to some unfavorable criticism. That criticism may, in some instances, have been instigated by partisan motives, but there can be no doubt that much of it came from entirely friendly sources. Indeed, there was a prima facie reason for it.

Civil service reformers are well aware that while the competitive merit system furnishes, on the whole, a public service vastly superior to that furnished by the spoils system, it may occasionally fail to present for appointment the fittest man for the place to be filled, especially when experience or other particular qualifications are required, and that a strict application of the civil service rules may now and then work a grievance, on individuals, exciting the sympathy of the appointing power.

How, in such cases, the interest of the public may be best served or substantial justice may be done without injury to the integrity of the merit system and without subjecting the appointing power to the suspicion of arbitrary action or of favoritism, is one of the complicated questions on which there may well be a difference of opinion. The shortest way to solve the difficulty is no doubt that the President should take each case of that kind in hand, form his judgment upon it, and, if he finds that what he thinks the best thing to do cannot be done under a strict enforcement of the rules as to this special case, order action according to his judgment. And this seems to be the practice recommended by the Civil Service Commission, or at least a majority of its members, to the President and adopted by him.

But many members of this League, of whom I am one, although recognizing the expeditiousness of this practice in accomplishing the object immediately in view, look upon it as a very dangerous venture as to its ulterior consequences.

It is one of the most fundamental principles of the merit system that appointments to places in the classified service, under the competition rule, shall not be made at the arbitrary will of the appointing power, but solely on the ground of merit, as shown by open competitive examination supplemented by practical probation during a certain period. This is to exclude from the action of the appointing power the motive of personal or political favoritism. It is essential that this principle be maintained — not only to the end of securing to the public service, on the whole, the best class of public servants, but also — and this is hardly less important — to inspire the general public with confidence in the honesty, the good faith of the system — a confidence without which civil service reform, in spite of all the prestige it has gained, will again have to struggle hard for existence. It can survive occasional miscarriages of an honest application of its principles. But the loss of popular confidence in its good faith will seriously threaten its life. It is, therefore, supremely important that whatever may be calculated to weaken that popular confidence be carefully avoided, and that in this respect even appearance creating suspicion must be regarded as hardly less dangerous than evil practice.

It is evident that in this respect hardly anything can be more questionable, more liable to an unfavorable interpretation than the suspensions of the rules in favor of, or for the benefit of, certain selected individuals. The appointing power will have to satisfy public opinion that the suspension of the rules has taken place in the public interest, and not in the interest of favored individuals. This is done, or intended to be done, by the official statement and publication of the reasons which have induced the appointing power to suspend the rules. To impart full credit to such statements it is important not only that they should, in fact, be candid and honest, but that they should be beyond reasonable doubt convincing as to their pertinency. How far this has been accomplished we may conclude from the records before us in the reports of the Civil Service Commission. It appears from those records that in several cases the rules were suspended for the purpose of securing the services of men peculiarly qualified for the discharge of certain special duties — their special qualification being attested either by the authority of learned bodies or by persons considered trustworthy, or by evidences of expert knowledge. The rest consists mostly of cases in which strict compliance with the rules did not seem quite convenient, and in cases in which persons, mostly ladies, who had left the service, were reinstated after the lapse of one year, during which, according to the rule, such reinstatement should be permissible without a re-examination. With suspensions of the rules of this class, personal sympathy had evidently more to do than the interest of the service. Indeed, considering the inevitable evil effects of suspensions of the civil service rules that are not absolutely necessary, the interest of the service was, as to this class of cases, decidedly on the other side.

Neither did the practice of suspending the rules prove itself reliable, in more important instances, in the appointment of better officers than could otherwise have been obtained. Under President McKinley's administration the rules were suspended for such purpose three times, and two of those suspensions resulted in the preferment of men who a short time afterwards found themselves under indictment for fraudulent practices in the Post-Office Department. Nor has under President Roosevelt's administration the interest of the service been promoted by a suspension of the rules to secure the appointment as assistant commissioner of immigration of a politician who could not have reached that position through a competitive test, or the appointment under a suspension of the rules of an “inspector of hulls” who subsequently was disgraced as an incompetent by the famous “General Slocum” disaster, and whose previous record had been such that it should have prevented his appointment to so important an office under any circumstance. Those who urged upon President Roosevelt a suspension of the rules in his behalf on account of his exceptional experience, would no doubt have received from the President a very energetic rebuff, had they exhibited that record to him.

Reading the statement of the reasons given for the various suspensions of the rules, my mind received the impression — and I expect this will be the impression received by the average reader — that, while there are a few cases in which extraordinary action may have been called for to secure men of exceptional qualifications for certain official positions, and while the President, in taking such extraordinary action, has been actuated by the best of motives, the whole proceeding bears in some important respects a striking resemblance to the distribution of places under the spoils system. I do not pretend to any special information on that point, but I think I risk little in saying that this practice of granting suspensions of the rules in favor of individuals has already gone farther than President Roosevelt originally intended or foresaw. It is a significant fact that while President McKinley granted only three such suspensions, their number had, under President Roosevelt, according to reports made at the last session of Congress, risen to sixty; and it is rumored that a large number has been applied for but not granted.

There is then at once the striking fact so characteristic of the spoils system that as soon as the possibility of obtaining office by a suspension of the civil service rules becomes known, the applicants gather and multiply and one of the advantages gained by the introduction of the merit system, namely to relieve the Executive of troublesome pressure, is thereby in the same measure lost. Another consequence of greater moment is sure to follow. As the pressure for such suspensions of the rules increases, the number will also increase, and with their growing frequency the scrutiny of the reasons held to justify such suspensions will inevitably relax. This is no mere conjecture on my part. We have already had the actual experience of it. In studying the record you will be struck by the fact that, the suspending practice once under way, its operation was not at all confined to places requiring peculiar qualifications, but that it descended to ordinary clerkships and even to messenger places, and that in some instances the reason given for exceptional action appears exceedingly slight.

Nor will the practice, if continued, remain confined, as it so far in the main has been, to places in the government departments in Washington. The contagion will inevitably spread to the government offices throughout the country, and the President will be crowded with requests for suspensions of the rules from Collectors of Customs and Collectors of the Internal Revenue, and Postmasters and other heads of government establishments, whenever they want for one reason or another to place some particular person in some particular berth and find the civil service rules in their way. And the larger the number of such applications grows, the less will the President be able to give each case his personal attention, the more will he have to depend upon the advice given him by his subordinates high and low — some of whom may not be nearly as conscientious in such things as he is himself — and the more certainly will the new practice slide into the old ruts of the spoils system with its questionable recommendations, and petitions, and appeals and intrigues.

It is easy to see that the practice of suspending the rules the more it spreads the more it will, by the frequency of arbitrary appointments, be liable to strike at the vitality of the principle of open competition, which is the very foundation stone of the merit system. In any event, it will fatally weaken the confidence of the people in the impartial administration of that system, and thus immensely hurt the cause of civil service reform in public opinion. The President may be ever so scrupulous in scrutinizing the reasons for suspending, in behalf of any individual, a rule which is recognized as just and necessary, yet a single case in which the suspension of the rule was not unavoidable in the interest of the service, will throw suspicion on the whole practice, and the charge of favoritism, personal or political, will not only be made, but it will be very widely believed. This is inevitable. But if it were not certain — if it were only probable or only possible, it would be a risk involving the whole moral credit of the civil service reform cause — a risk which should be taken only under the pressure of the most imperative necessity — certainly not lightly.

I have heard it said that when a person is to be found for a certain office standing under the competitive rule, and the competitive rule can, for some reason, at the time not be complied with, it is better to suspend the rule as to that particular case, than to exempt the office itself altogether form the application of the rule. This is not the only alternative. I have already observed that while the competition system furnishes the best average results, it may sometimes fail to present for appointment the person particularly desired by the appointing power or their superior officers, or it may cause delays or other temporary inconveniences. Under such circumstances we have to console ourselves with the reflection that nothing human is absolutely perfect, and that it will generally be better to bear such imperfections and to seek proper remedies with patience than precipitately to resort to medicines, the effect of which will be far worse than the troubles originally complained of. This applies to at least nine-tenths of the cases on record in which the rule has been suspended. They were, in themselves, of very little real importance. And as to the very few instances in which the men of extraordinary qualifications needed for a particular place could really not be obtained by the ordinary competitive process, I doubt not that the ingenuity of the Civil Service Commission will be able to find a method of making proper appointments possible in a regular way, without exposing them to the least possible suspicion of arbitrariness or partiality.

We are told that so far no present harm has been done by the suspensions of the rules. But what incalculable harm may they not do in the future if they are permitted to stand as precedents! We cannot always expect to have a convinced and militant friend of civil service reform in the Presidential chair. Must we not look for the contingency of that chair being occupied by a President who dislikes the merit system, or who does not care enough about it to protect it with a strong will against the greed of his political friends? Will not he or his political friends find in the record of suspensions, even as it now stands, precedents, or what they may artfully construe as precedents, to serve as justification for any arbitrary appointment they may wish to make, thus eventually wrecking the whole system? And is it not, therefore, devoutly to be wished that the Administration should take an attitude forever preventing those suspensions of the rules from becoming precedents to be used for such evil ends?

The Administration would thereby add to the many excellent things it has already done for the cause of civil service reform another one, and, indeed, one no less important than any of them, and thus encourage the hope, which we all confidently cherish, that it will carry the work as far onward as Executive action can carry it.

From Proceedings at the annual meeting of The National Civil Service Reform League, Washington, D. C., December 8 and 9, 1904, pp. 84-93.