Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

The present federal civil service system is much the same as in 1883. Only two new elements have been added—retirement and position-classification. However, the merit system has been vastly expanded, both in giving protection from spoils and politics and in requiring competitive tests and efficiency on the job.

This is the chief sign of a new and modern purpose in civil service. The main object of the Pendleton Act and of state civil service laws passed at about the same time was to get rid of the evils of the spoils system. Today, the idea is not just to avoid personnel changes for partisan reasons, but to get really efficient and capable people into the government service. Also, the administration of the civil service system has been vastly improved. We now refer to it as “personnel management.”


How does the retirement system work?

Not until the Retirement Act of 1920 did the federal government provide for its superannuated employees. This act, as revised, provides for compulsory retirement of employees on reaching seventy years of age who have had at least fifteen years service in the government. An annuity is paid on retirement, toward which the government and the worker both contribute.

The benefit of the retirement system was revealed immediately upon passage of the act. In the first two months more than 5,000 employees retired. Some were over ninety years of age! And yet it took more than seventy years of agitation before the Retirement Act was passed, the first bill having been introduced in 1849! In the meantime, old and infirm employees were kept on the job because the departments did not want to thrust them out into poverty. Naturally, employees felt that their long years of service went unrewarded.

Workmen’s compensation, as it is known in the factories, was introduced into the federal government services in 1916 when the Employees Compensation Act was passed. This provides compensation for injury or death incurred by a federal employee. It is administered in active service by a separate agency, the United States Employees Compensation Commission.

What is position-classification?

One of the early and ineffective civil service reforms was the “classification” made of certain federal positions by the act of 1853. As a matter of history, an act as early as 1795 provided that the department heads should vary salaries “in such a manner as the services to be performed shall, in their judgment, require.” But Congress soon thereafter began to specify in appropriation acts the exact number of clerks in a department and the salaries to be paid them. In the end, there was neither standardization of titles nor equality of pay.

Many efforts were made at reform. Grant’s Civil Service Commission appointed a committee on the subject in 1871. Every annual report of the present commission from 1902 on stressed the need for “equal pay for equal work.” In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed the so-called “Keep Committee” which devised a position-classification system based on duties rather than salaries. In 1911 President Taft’s Commission on Efficiency and Economy concluded a classification system was long overdue and in 1918 there was established a Division of Efficiency to carry out the instructions of Congress that a uniform system be established for rating the efficiency of federal employees. It was soon found that efficiency ratings could not be compared until positions were standardized.

Finally in 1919 Congress established the Joint Commission on Reclassification of Salaries. Its report of 1920 revealed startling discrepancies in titles and salaries. An example is the job which the commission decided should be called “senior file and record clerk.” At the time there were 105 titles for this job with salaries ranging from $720 to $2,400 a year.

For three years Congress debated various bills and in March 1923 passed the Classification Act. It applied only to the posts in Washington and not to “the field” as government offices outside the Washington headquarters are known. These were left to the departments until 1940 when under the Ramspeck Act the Civil Service Commission was given jurisdiction over the field positions.

What is the pay for federal jobs?

The 1923 classification plan assures equal pay- for equal work. Each job is analyzed and assigned to a class on the basis of its duties. Job-titles are standardized according to their class, for instance, “clerk-typist,” “messenger,” and so on. Thus the name of the job comes from the name of the class to which it belongs. Classification considers the job as the entity and as separate from the individual. In other words, the duties and responsibilities of the work involved, and not the qualifications of the person holding the job, determine the classification.

The classes and grades of federal jobs are in turn grouped into four services as the chart on page 14 shows. P stands for professional; CAF for clerical-administrative-fiscal; CPC for crafts-protective-custodial; SP for subprofessional.

Notice that there are two ways to get more pay. One is an increase within grade, from the minimum or entrance rate to the maximum. Such increases are granted because of efficiency and length of service. The other is by promotion to a vacancy in the next trade, P-1 to P-2 for example, when the worker is picked to assume the greater responsibility and difficulty of work of the higher grade.

As a measure, it might be mentioned that the college graduate generally enters at the CAF-5 or P-1 level and spends a year or more in that grade before moving to the next grade. Time spent within each grade lengthens, usually, as the worker goes up the ladder.

Many workers are in “upgraded” positions, especially the civilians working in arsenals and navy yards for the War and Navy departments. These industrial-type jobs are outside the formal classification system. For them, job-classification and salaries are determined through wage-fixing procedures locally and are related to the rate paid in each place for comparable jobs in private enterprise.

Are all government jobs under civil service?

Almost all federal government positions except policy-making posts are now under civil service. (We will discuss state and city governments later.) This coverage of federal jobs was not achieved until a few years ago, however. Only about 10 percent of the federal jobs were covered at the time the Civil Service Act was passed—1883. But the act gave the president the authority to include additional positions. Every president since then has added positions to the classified, or competitive, civil service.

United States Government Salary Tables

Effective on and after July 1, 1945
Service and GradeBasic Pay RatesService and Grade
916Set by CongressSet by CongressSet by CongressSet by CongressSet by Congress**


It should be noted that the Civil Service Act has never been very popular politically. In the beginning, repeal bills were introduced in almost every Congress. Nearly every Congress has also made exceptions from civil service of new or even old positions.

World War II was the first major emergency period in which the federal civil service was fully maintained. During both the Spanish-American War and World War I and during the depression of the 1930’s new positions were excepted. For example, coverage fell from what was the all-time high point of 80 percent in 1932 to 60 percent in 1938.

By presidential orders of 1938 and by the Ramspeck Act of 1940 and the subsequent executive orders of 1941 inclusions were made in the civil service which were not even contemplated in the act of 1888—certain employees of the federal courts, certain presidential appointees (postmasters), and unskilled laborers.

Should all government jobs be under civil service?

It is commonly agreed now that most government employees in order to be efficient and impartial need to be protected and prohibited from politics. But this does not apply to the political leaders. For a healthy and vigorous democracy political leadership is necessary. A president needs supporters, not enemies, in his cabinet to help carry out his policies and programs. Cabinet members need certain assistants to maintain political liaison with the Congress and with other departments. Hence, the very top positions in the executive branch of the government are normally excepted from civil service and politically filled. Political responsibility would be impossible otherwise.

There seems to be no good reason why judicial employees should not be under civil service. Judges are, of course, under a form of merit system, except that appointment is not by competitive test.

Furthermore, there seems to be no good reason why legislative employees should not be under civil service, with the exception of course of the Congressman himself and perhaps his confidential assistants.

What about the foreign service and TVA?

Neither the foreign service officers of the State Department nor the employees of the Tennessee Valley Authority are under the jurisdiction of the United States Civil Service Commission. But both agencies do have merit systems of their own. The Rogers Act of 1921 requires that the State Department select foreign service officers by- examination. And the organic act of the Tennessee Valley Authority requires that it also observe merit principles in hiring and firing its employees. As a corporation, however, TVA is permitted to handle its own personnel without regard to the Civil Service Commission. Veterans preference, however, applies to both agencies.

This means that anyone interested in the foreign service of the State Department or in a job with TVA must take the examinations set up by those agencies. The tests of the U. S. Civil Service Commission serve almost all the rest of the government agencies.

Can a civil servant run for elective office?

If a federal civil servant wants to run for office, he has to resign first. As the history of American civil service indicates, this ban on politics is the product of years of

What the federal civil servant cannot do is publicly to try to influence other people’s politics. He can vote as he chooses. He may express his political opinions in private. He can go to meetings, belong and contribute to political clubs. His role, however, must be that of spectator. Similar restrictions prevail in some—but not all—state and local civil service systems.partisan pulling and hauling. It is now clear that government service must be nonpartisan. Political activity is forbidden. This means that a federal civil service employee may not run for office—federal, state, or local—hold a office in a political club, serve on a partisan committee, or otherwise take an active part in a political campaign. He may not be associated with a publication that prints political articles.

Must public employees pay political assessments?

It is against the law for a federal employee to solicit political funds from another. This prohibition has been carried to the point that solicitation cannot be carried on by anyone in a federal government building.

The Hatch Act of July 1940 makes it illegal for anyone receiving his pay even in part from federal funds to be politically active. This means state and local employees who work on cooperative programs such as highways and agricultural aid, paid in whole or in part from federal money, cannot engage in politics. Cases involving just such employees come before the Civil Service Commission from time to time.

The United States Civil Service Commission enforces this provision of the Hatch Act. It has been possible only in the last four or five years to say truthfully that the great body of federal employees really are neutral politically and protected from partisan influence. The exceptions of course are the policy-determining positions.

What is personnel administration?

With the advent of the twentieth century, government became so large and so important that more freedom from spoils was not enough. Mere ability to do the -work was not enough. The title of President Tuft’s Commission on Economy and Efficiency is indicative. The expense of the federal government was sufficient to make these considerations pressing. Government work had to be done as cheaply and effectively as possible.

There was another factor, too. As the industry and commerce of the country expanded, the government had to enter more actively into competition for employees with private enterprise. Salary, promotion opportunity, and satisfactory work conditions had to be provided. Finally, as civil service was extended upward more emphasis had to be put on quality. At first, examinations were held only for clerks at the lower salary levels. But by the 1940’s all but the top policy positions were included and the Civil Service Commission was testing for 8, 9, and in a few cases 10 thousand dollar jobs.

Modern civil service has to include all phases of personnel administration: recruitment, selection, placement, probation, training, promotions and transfers, retirement and disability benefits, salary and wage administration, efficiency ratings, employee relations, and removals. Furthermore, all these activities have to be carried on together. Insofar as they are successfully carried on, the government becomes a career service for the employee and an efficient service for the public which it serves.

Next section: How Does One Get a Job in Civil Service?