How America got its civil service of appointees

The United States changes its top civil service leaders with every new president. Lorenzo Castellani offers an insight on how this system came to be, drawing on research from his new book
The Eisenhower Executive Building in Washington DC, where many US federal civil servants are based. Photos: Adobe Stock

By Lorenzo Castellani

28 Apr 2021

In the United Kingdom, before 1780, that amorphous collection of functionaries that some writers have incautiously termed a civil service was in fact no such thing. Indeed, according to the historian Henry Parris, that apparatus was not permanent, not civil and not a service.

Permanency has become a way to distinguish longer-serving officials from shorter-tenured ministers. But in the 18th century, ministers often remained in office as long as they felt they retained the king’s confidence, even when the prime minister had resigned. But ministers were not, in any case, permanent functionaries, and did not personally administer their departmental affairs until the last quarter of the 19th century, while their subordinate officials performed tasks which nowadays would be considered political and therefore taboo for neutral civil servants.

And it was certainly not yet a unified organisation. This was not a body of full-time salaried officers, systematically recruited, with clear lines of authority and uniform rules that disciplined their careers and pay. Indeed, the 19th-century debates about civil service reform reflected the need for institutional adjustment in a society that had been undergoing an extensive industrial revolution. Rules and superannuation were not consolidated until the 1830s, and systematic recruitment did not become the norm until after 1870.

However, in the latter part of the 18th century, it became usual for an outgoing ministerial team to resign and go into opposition. This established a pattern of “government” and “opposition”, which made it necessary to distinguish permanent from temporary servants of the crown, and it quickly became established that the great majority of posts must be permanent, setting the basis for the permanent civil service.

Such a system has remained in place for all the years that followed, albeit with periodic waves of reform. But some appointments as part of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus have demonstrated that this is not the only approach. A number of appointments have been made to lead specific elements of the response – Kate Bingham for the vaccine taskforce, Baroness Dido Harding for the test and trace system, and Dame Louise Casey as the head of the taskforce to house rough sleepers during the pandemic’s first wave – that has more in line with a system where politicians appoint outsiders rather than career civil servants to many administrative roles.

In the UK, this has led to concerns that these appointments risk falling into gaps in accountability, but many other countries have systems with much greater political appointments in the bureaucracy.

One example is the United States, where, instead of a permanent senior civil service that remains in place as administrations change, there is a principle of spoils system. This means in Washington DC, many top jobs change hands when there is a change of president.

Part of the explanation in the difference between the UK and the US lay in the view of government posts by the 19th-century British as inalienable items of freehold property. Crown sinecures were, nevertheless, gradually abolished following a series of parliamentary inquiries inspired by mounting concern in the first half of the 19th century about wasteful public expenditure. And the killing of patronage occurred with the Northcote-Trevelyan inquiry of 1853, which prescribed the creation of a professional civil service with a systematic recruitment based on competitive exams.

While in the United States, as I argue in my book The History of the United States Civil Service from the Postwar Years to the Twenty-First Century, a traditional, European-like bureaucracy has never established. The American administrative system developed and maintained its proper peculiarities. According to Herbert Kaufman, “an examination of the administrative institutions of this country suggests that they have been organised and operated in pursuit successively of three values, here designated representativeness, neutral competence, and executive leadership”. Representativeness held the most promise in the post-colonial period, and it was hailed as a way to keep executive power in check.

The earliest stress was placed on representativeness in government, the quest for which clearly had its roots in the colonial period, when colonial assemblies were struggling with royal governors for control of political life in the New World and “no taxation without representation” was a slogan that expressed one of the principal interests and anxieties of the colonists. The legislatures thus became the champions of the indigenous population against what was regarded in many quarters as executive oppression. It was manifested in the widespread perception of the legislature as the champion of the citizens and limited powers of executives (such as the governors or local representatives or mayors). Up to the end of the Civil War, it was through the legislatures that government policy was formulated and legitimated. The emphasis on representativeness was manifested in the form of an increasing number of official positions filled by balloting. Moreover, the development of the political parties in the Jacksonian era strengthened the idea of patronage for administrative posts. According to a 19th-century American’s mentality, in a real democracy loyal activists had to be rewarded with a temporary appointment in the administration ranks. This characteristic of organising the upper levels of administrative power, named the spoils system, albeit restricted and reformed, is still part of the American administrative tradition today.

“It was essential to give the president the managerial powers to run the executive branch like a corporate CEO, including powers over personnel”

The counter-balance to patronage was the introduction of the merit system in the late 19th century. Merit was the long time battle cry of the Progressive-era reformers and the middle class, seeking a political system without corruption and spoils. Civil servants should be free from any political taint and overlooked by a Civil Service Commission. They should be expert professionals who were hired, compensated and promoted without partisan considerations. Civil service reform had been a mass movement leading up to its enactment at the federal level in the 1883 Pendleton Act and widespread enactment in states and localities.

Yet at the same time, there occurred the rise of the management class as a consequence of capitalistic development. Large corporations were no longer run by owners and boards of directors. Instead, the American solution was for a professionally trained class of managers who would make all important decisions regarding the operations of the corporation. The rise of management as an idea was a kind of endorsement of the new American political economy. Everybody had to pull in the direction indicated by the manager. Given the dominance and idolatry of business in the American political economy, the common perspective has been that government needed more businesslike practices. Transposing business administration to public administration was presumed to be valid and preferred. Government needed to be made as efficient as business.

In this context, it was essential to give the president the managerial powers to run the executive branch like a corporate CEO, including the powers of budgeting, personnel and planning, and to transform the public functionaries into public managers. The civil service had to be reformed following managerial principles and practices and this is what occurred by late 1970s, when the neo-managerial era begun.

This was formalised by the passage and the subsequent implementation of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which abolished the Civil Service Commission and created the Office for Personnel Management. From this moment onward, the civil service was required to follow business-like principles both in personnel management and in organisational practices, meaning the US civil service today is a layering of political patronage (appointees), merit principle (recruiting on the base of neutral competence), and management (the search for efficient organisation to accomplish political aims). In light of the coronavirus response, it is an approach that may have more lessons for the UK than many officials would have thought just one year ago.

Lorenzo Castellani is an adjunct professor in the department of political science at the Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. He is the author of The History of the United States Civil Service
from the Postwar Years to the Twenty-First Century

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