Should the U.S. federal bureaucracy abandon the 100-year-old civil service system and return to the 19th-century spoils system? Should we take a back-to-the-future approach to bureaucratic reform? Maybe the spoils system wasn't so bad after all but performed in a more stable fashion with less corruption than conventional wisdom suggests. Although there is a broad consensus among scholars and politicians that the civil service system functions poorly, finding an alternative way to manage personnel threatens the many political benefits that powerful actors now enjoy from the current system. A return to the spoils system addresses a very important need for reform but given the political basis for the operation of the current system, a return to spoils would only make a bad situation worse.
WHY THE CURRENT SYSTEM IS FLAWED
The news media often characterizes the federal bureaucracy as inefficient and rigid, and public opinion polls show that citizens do not have much confidence in the federal government. Politicians run against the bureaucracy and the Washington establishment because such tactics prove to be politically popular. Several scholars, myself included, have implicated the civil service as one of the causes of poor performance by the bureaucracy (Knott & Miller, 1987). By insulating the bureaucracy from the policy and political direction of the president and Congress, the civil service fosters a lack of responsiveness. In addition, the main features of the civil service system - the standardized pay scales, position classifications, the bumping system, job security, and the detailed rules and regulations surrounding hiring and promotion - contribute to rigidity, low morale, inadequate pay scales, and low productivity.
The civil service consists of a set of institutional rules for governing personnel decisions. The standard institutional economics criticism of these rules is that they have evolved in such a way that many of them work to hinder rather than promote merit. Adverse selection occurs in the hiring process. A slow procedure of examinations for choosing applicants for positions discourages high performing applicants who may be snatched up by other organizations before the federal bureaucracy can offer a position. Expectations of job security in the civil service as well as generous fringe benefits potentially induce a disproportionate share of risk-adverse individuals to apply for federal jobs. Once in federal positions, employees lack adequate incentives to follow the policy directives of political leaders and to work in the most productive manner because of job security and standardized pay scales based on seniority.
Although there is truth in these accusations, the root cause of the problems of bureaucratic unresponsiveness and inefficiency runs deeper into the political structure of the federal government. Like other institutions, the civil service system represents the product of political choice by powerful actors who have benefited from the system for many decades. In the American separation of powers system, the bureaucracy finds itself in a political tug-of-war between the president and the Congress for control over the allocation of public benefits to groups in society. In this context of institutional rivalry, political actors use the civil service to insulate their programs from intrusions by their opponents (Moe, 1985). Committees in Congress ally with executive agencies and interest groups to provide subsidies and protection to specific congressional constituencies. The wheels of these alliances are greased by reciprocity among members of Congress who construct mutually advantageous coalitions among diverse interests. The president often opposes these special interest alliances and the public programs they sponsor …