What is Civil Service?
A civil servant or public servant is a civilian career public sector employee
working for a government department or agency. Many consider the study of civil
service to be a part of the field of public administration. Further workers in
non-departmental public bodies may also be classed as civil servants for the
purpose of producing statistics. Examples in this category include some
employees of so-called QUANGOs. Collectively they form a nation's Civil Service
or Public Service.
In the British Civil Service, civil servants are career employees recruited and
promoted on the basis of their administrative skill and technical expertise, and
as such do not include, nor are appointed by, elected officials or their
political advisors. Civil servants are expected to be politically neutral, and
may be prohibited from taking part in political campaigns. However, the extent
of this political neutrality in practice - especially within the ranks of the
most senior of Civil Servants - has sometimes been questioned.
In the United States, the Civil Service is defined as "all appointive positions
in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the Government of the
United States, except positions in the uniformed services." (United States Code
Title 5 § 2101). In the early 19th century it was based on the so-called spoils
system, in which all bureaucrats were dependent on elected politicians. This was
changed by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 and today U.S. civil
servants are appointed and recruited based on merit, although certain civil
service positions, including some heads of diplomatic missions and executive
agencies may also be filled by political appointees. The U.S. Civil Service
includes the Competitive service, and the Excepted service. The majority of
civil service appointments in the U.S. are made under the Competitive Service,
but certain categories in the Diplomatic Service, the FBI, and other National
Security positions are made under the Excepted Service. (U.S. Code Title V)
Other countries tend to use systems which vary between these two extremes. For
example, in France all civil servants are career officials as in Britain,
although ministers have a greater ability to select the occupants of senior
posts on grounds of political sympathy (and consequently senior officers have
the opportunity for lengthy secondments to the private sector when they are seen
as unsuitable to work with the party in office); while Germany makes a clear
distinction, as in the USA, between political and official posts (though the
threshold is placed rather higher).
Certain public sector workers may not be classified as civil servants. In most
countries, members of the armed forces, for example, are not considered civil
servants. In the U.K., employees of the National Health Service and of Local
Government Authorities are not civil servants. The British civil service was at
its largest in 1976 with approximately three-quarters of a million servants
employed. By April 1999 this number had fallen to a record low of 459,600 due to
privatization, outsourcing and cutbacks. The number has again risen somewhat
The archetypal senior British civil servant was famously caricatured in the
1970s and 80s BBC comedy Yes, Minister.
No state of any extent can be ruled without a bureaucracy, but organizations
of any size have been few until the modern era. Administrative institutions
usually grow out of the personal servants of high officials, as in the Roman
Empire. This developed a complex administrative structure, which is outlined in
the Notitia Dignitatum and the work of John Lydus, but as far as we know
appointments to it were made entirely by inheritance or patronage and not on
merit, and it was also possible for officers to employ other people to carry out
their official tasks but continue to draw their salary themselves. There are
obvious parallels here with the early bureaucratic structures in modern states,
such as the Office of Works or the Navy in 18th-century England, where again
appointments depended on patronage and were often bought and sold.
One of the oldest examples of a merit-based civil service is the Chinese
bureaucracy which during the Tang dynasty relied decreasingly on aristocratic
recommendations and more and more upon promotion based on written examinations.
The Chinese civil service became known to Europe in the mid-18th century and it
is believed to have influenced the creation of civil services in Europe.
Ironically, the first European civil service was not set up in Europe, but
rather in India by the East India Company, distinguishing its civil servants
from its military servants. In order to prevent corruption and favouritism,
promotions within the company were based on examinations. The system then spread
to the United Kingdom in 1854, and to the United States with the Pendleton Civil
The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act is an 1883 United States federal law
that established the United States Civil Service Commission, which placed most
federal employees on the merit system and marked the end of the so-called
"spoils system." Drafted during the Chester A. Arthur administration, the
Pendleton Act served as a response to President James Garfield's assassination
by Charles J. Guiteau (a "disappointed office seeker"). The Act was passed into
law on January 16, 1883. The Act was sponsored by Senator George H. Pendleton,
Democrat of Ohio, and written by Dorman B. Eaton, a staunch opponent of the
patronage system who was later first chairman of the United States Civil Service
The federal bureaucracy in the years after the Civil War was generally
undistinguished, because the system of selecting officials and supervising their
work was irrational. That system had evolved in the early nineteenth century,
and relied on the well-known political adage, "to the victor belong the spoils."
That did not necessarily mean that bad people were appointed; many government
officials were quite good, but the system itself was ill-suited to efficiency.
This spoils system caused many presidents to exploit their position of power by
granting ill-equipped friends to important government jobs as opposed to people
of merit and qualifications.
The idea of rotation in office, however, was thought to be "democratic." Andrew
Jackson in 1829 had declared: "No man has any more intrinsic right to official
station than another... The duties of all public officers are, or at least admit
of being made, so plain and simple that men of intelligence may readily qualify
themselves for their performance."
This had not been true in 1829, and was certainly not true fifty years later.
The constant turnover provided no institutional memory; government workers
panicked at every election and had little sense of loyalty to their jobs,
because their tenure was often of such short duration. As Henry Clay put it,
government officials after an election are "like the inhabitants of Cairo when
the plague breaks out; no one knows who is next to encounter the stroke of
Over the years, the flaws became more serious and obvious. Political leaders
required their patronage appointees to devote time and money to party affairs.
After each election winners were besieged by hungry office-seekers, and
wrangling between the president and Congress over patronage became endemic.
By the 1880s, one could open a Washington newspaper after an election and find
many advertisements like this one:
WANTEDA GOVERNMENT CLERKSHIP at a salary of not less than $1,000 per annum.
Will give $100 to any one securing me such a position.
The situation was compounded by the growth of the federal bureaucracy. In
Jackson's time there had been 20,000 persons on the federal payroll. By end of
the Civil War the number had increased to 53,000; by 1884, 131,000; and by 1891,
166,000. Presidents were hounded by office- seekers. When James Garfield became
president he discovered hungry office-seekers "lying in wait" for him "like
vultures for a wounded bison."
Moreover, new government jobs required special skills. The use of typewriters,
introduced in the early 1880s, meant that mere literacy and decent penmanship
were no longer enough for a clerk's job. With the creation of administrative
agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission and specialized agricultural
bureaus, one needed scientific expertise. The spoils system was not the way to
get them. This is where the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 comes into play.
This act classified that government jobs were now, under this act, being applied
for and given to those whose abilities fit the position best. But, with this act
came two rules, they cannot tribute to campaign funds and they cannot be fired
for political reasons.
A civil service movement started in New York in 1877, and although it developed
considerable public support, the politicians refused to go along. Then came the
assassination of President Garfield by Charles Guiteau, a disappointed
office-seeker, and the public clamor could no longer be ignored.
The Pendleton Act classified certain jobs, removed them from the patronage
ranks, and set up a Civil Service Commission to administer a system based on
merit rather than political connections.
As the classified list was expanded over the years, it provided for a competent
and permanent government bureaucracy. In 1883 fewer than 15,000 jobs were
classified; by the time William McKinley became president in 1897, 86,000almost
half of all federal employees were classified.