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What is Civil Service?

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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 since then.

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 Service Act.

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 Commission.

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 death."

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.


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