Why Do We Have a Merit System?

Government is the largest employer in the United States. Even before World War II began, one out of every ten civilians worked for government—national, state, and local. They did just about every commonly known kind of work plus some kinds, like collecting taxes, that are done only by governments. Serving the public in the twentieth century requires people who have thousands of different shills and special kinds of training.

Information about applying for a government job can always be found in post offices or in state and local government buildings. You can also get it by writing or visiting the appropriate agency.At a factory, the workman files through the employment gate and there does or does not get a job, depending on whether his skill is needed that day. Or he checks at his union hiring hall until there is a call for his services. Getting a government job, however, is a more formal process. Indeed, it is a much more formal process today than it was in 1881, when the National Civil Service Reform League was organized in an effort to correct abuses of the old “spoils system.” The only way to get a government job under the spoils system was to petition the leaders of the political party then in power. Whenever a different party or administration came into control, it fired at will the government employees appointed during the preceding regime. Then it distributed their john to its own loyal supporters in accordance with the value of their services to the party. The spoils system didn’t make for high quality in government personnel or for efficiency in their services to the public. It gave almost everyone a headache, especially during house-cleaning periods when all experienced government employees had been thrown out and the new ones had not yet learned their jobs.In contrast to the spoils system, let’s look at the situation in the year before we entered World War II. During the year ending June 30, 1940, more than 839,000 persons tools civil service examinations for jobs in the national government alone. About 45 percent of them got passing grades, and about 12 percent got jobs during that fiscal year. Most of the people who now work for national, state, and local governments got their jobs only after taking and passing examinations which tested their qualifications.

To understand the why and wherefore of this formality—usually called “red tape”—we need to know something of how civil service came about.

From EM 38: Who Should Choose a Civil Service Career? (1946)