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 prestige of government jobs is not nearly so high as it should be. When they think of the public service, many Americans still have in mind the old days of scandal and corruption. They seem to be more familiar with the spoils system than the merit system. This is not surprising. The routine operations of civil service don’t get much publicity. But the tugs of war over political appointments to top government jobs do make headlines. The public doesn’t always bear in mind that the political appointments to the policy-determining posts in government are the exceptions and not the rule.

Also, enough state and local governments are still without any kind of merit system to preserve this old view of the government service.

Actually government employees are a good cross section of the community from which they come. They are likely to be a superior group if they get their jobs on the basis of examinations passed in competition with other citizens.

There are a number of government employees to whom the security of the public service is the prime appeal. But counterbalancing such timeservers is the much larger group of workers who are in the government because of their interest in one social program or another and a desire to make a contribution to the general welfare.


What’s all this talk about bureaucrats?

“Bureaucrat,” the way some people use it, is a kind of cussword pinned on a public servant. It is a political weapon more than anything else. In any complex large-scale enterprise, be it public or private, there are of necessity large numbers of persons who can be charted with bureaucracy. A study was made of bureaucracy in both government and business not very many years ago for the Temporary National Economic Committee of Congress. This study found that characteristics generally called bureaucratic—inflexibility, arrogance, petty insistence on rules and regulations—were to be found in some large industries and businesses such as railroads and insurance companies as well as in some government departments. The difference was not so much between government and business as between specific businesses and between different government agencies. There are good, bad, and indifferent examples of each. Much depends on the leadership at the top.

Government is by nature more restrained than private enterprise. Responsibility to the public requires conformity to all pertinent laws and regulations. This is necessary if the public is to maintain its civil rights. Government is the only agent in society with the right to use force on the individual when necessary. The restraint of such power is as important as the authority itself.

Post-war job opportunities in federal government (estimated)

Years after the WarReplacementsNew JobsTotal


Post-war job opportunities in state and local governments (estimated)

Years after the WarReplacementsNew JobsTotal


Can a government worker be fired?

A federal employee can be fired at any time “for the good of the service.” President Theodore Roosevelt made this ruling early in civil service history, in interpreting the words “for just cause” in the Pendleton Act, and that rule has stuck. The worker has no appeal unless he can charge political interference or religious discrimination.

The commission and the courts both have established the appointing officer’s right to fire. But if anything, the tradition has been too strong against dismissal. The result is that in some cases an incompetent may be retained or kicked upstairs rather than dismissed from the service as he should be.

In some states and especially in some cities, the public employee can appeal his dismissal to the local civil service commission, which can hold hearings and order his reinstatement if it deems the dismissal unjustified. Such hearings have an unfortunate way of turning into a trial of the appointing officer rather than of the employee’s dismissal and of slowing down public business. Therefore, most authorities favor the “open back door” of the federal system to this “closed back door” which permits appeal to the local civil service commission.

Can government employees join a union?

Government employees can join unions. There are both craft and industrial unions of government workers. The National Federation of Federal Employees, an independent union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFL), and the United Federal Workers of America (CIO) are the national government’s unions of largest size. They are active also in organizing and representing employees in many state and local governments. Also certain government employees belong directly to outside unions, as the Government Printing Office employees belong to the Typographical Union.

What personal qualities should one have?

What qualities should a person possess to assure his success in government work? Are these different than for private enterprise?

A simple answer is not possible. Government does many different things, and many that are done in private work too. The doctor in a government hospital does much the same work as the doctor in a private one. The difference lies largely in the way he is paid—which may be an important difference. The engineer or mechanic who works on a government dam or bridge won’t find it much different from working on the same l6nd of private project. Even the method of pay is much the same.

But there are differences. One has already been referred to. Government work is necessarily bound by the restraints of laws and rules. In many cases, the procedure of doing the work is also laid down. It follows that if you are the kind of person who cannot brook restraint you should not choose government work. If you value your own way above all else, consider carefully before you go into government service—or into large private organizations, for that matter.

This does not mean that there is no room for initiative in government service. Far from it. The Commerce Department for a time carried an “inventor” on its payroll, as such, and by that designation! But the objectives toward which initiative can be exercised and the manner of exercising it, are often prescribed in government. So if you’re the kind who in the old days to be happy would have had to keep moving farther west with each opening of new land, you probably won’t be happy in government service.

Likewise, most jobs in government require teamwork. You almost never work alone. The programs being carried on are too large for any one man,- even when finely divided into work units. So if you are the lone-wolf type who does best when working alone rather than with others, better go into some kind of private practice where you can work that way.

Government is public service

The supersalesman—promoter—has small place in government. Government has no sales departments and relatively few public relations and publicity men. It is significant that what public relations work is done by the government agencies is generally called information service. Government’s purposes are established by the Congress and its services are in most instances free to the customer. Most government informational activity is devoted to letting the citizen know what his rights are, answering his inquiries, and reporting on past activity. In other words, it is not an end in itself but an auxiliary to the operation of the particular program.

Government services require intelligence. This is not to say that private business does not. The point is that, generally speaking, in order to qualify in a civil-service examination and to stand high enough on the list to be certified for appointment, one must be above average in knowledge and ability. Further, because government is in most cases “big business,” it is not simple. It is complex, requiring both the intelligence to handle difficult work and the willingness to work in complex situations on complex problems.

The person who is interested mainly in making money will not find complete satisfaction in a career in government. The chances to make more than 5 or 6 thousand dollars a year in government are slight. That is as much as the governor gets in some states. That’s as much as any, except one in a thousand, get in the federal government; $10,000 is absolute tops. On the other hand, beginning salaries are good in government, on the whole better than in industry or commerce.

Remember that government work is public service. Both words are important in terms of the qualities desirable in the public servant. Aside from the compensation involved, there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in government work for one who is really interested in public affairs, for one who wants to be of service to his fellow man.

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