Civil Service Blues

In 1871, the US adopted a “Civil Service” method of organizing government appointed workers. Prior to that time, government employees could be hired and fired by the preference of the appointing authority, Federal, State, or local. These jobs were viewed as the “spoils” of political victory. If someone supported (and usually worked for the election there of) the winning party, there was an excellent chance government employment could come your way. Hmmm.

The short comings were plentiful. Lack of training and professionalism combined with partiality (favoritism) meant government work was crudely performed and if there were any benefits such as awarding contracts or spending government funds, these actions favored the party in power.

The Federal Civil Service Act was established in an attempt to improve professionalism and competency by insulating government employees from the whims of politicians. States followed with their own civil service laws. Now life is about to change.

Wisconsin has just signed into law a “rewrite” of their civil service regulations. The revision introduces “performance based” standards and extends probationary periods for new hires. Sound like an improvement?

Why shouldn’t someone who is performing poorly be discharged or in the case of lay-offs, why shouldn’t the younger and/or better performing individuals be retained in preference to the more senior?

The quandary, of course, is how does supervision determine who is doing a better job than another employee? And more to the point, if an employee is not a fervent supporter of the party in power. what keeps the supervisor from using job performance as a cover for redistributing political spoils?

Wisconsin will in essence be running an experiment. A new approach to civil service might result in better delivery of State services. If so, State residents will be winners. If not, State residents will reap that benefit too… and presumably turn to the opposite political party in subsequent elections. The law of natural consequences.

The unpleasant potential associate with weakening civil service lies in blatant mis-use of government funds. Already a problem even with strong civil service rules, State politicians set up all sorts of “authorities” which in turn award contracts and hire expensive law firms, both of which just happen to contribute to the political party in power. With a weakened civil service it will be just that much easier to “scratch someones back if they scratch yours”.

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