Ideals and Realities in the American Civil Service


  • Chester A (Chet) Newland Professor Emeritus , University of Southern California


Traditions go a long way in moulding institutions and serving as a guide to public service reform. (Stillman II 2003: 19-40). Tradition underpins our values systems, but it is mostly challenges that shape its course, determining the nature and dominant features of structures that come out of reforms. The article, which follows, considers major policies, practices and concerns which, at various times, have served as catalysts of change, at each of the three tiers of the American government system: federal, state and local. From very modest beginnings in the early nineteenth century, the federal civil service waxed in both size and quality in the Reconstruction period, after the Civil War and later under the influence of the Progressive Movement. However, it was mostly the Great Depression striking in 1929 and the challenges of War, from 1941 to 1945 and beyond, that have been instrumental in changing and expanding the scope of government and public administration. On all the levels of government, the Administrative State and civil service policies reflecting the values of merit and expertise came clearly into their own. The dominance of Politics never really disappeared but, from the nineteen-eighties, “an escape from Politics” increasingly has been as mostly unrealistic. Some current trends especially have added to the effects that privatization, “contracting out”, unionization and politicization of collective bargaining process have brought in their trail, substantially affecting the ways public services work. Still, it is two broader factors with roots in the external environment that currently produce profound transformative changes in the Structures and Ideals of the American Civil Services, on all three tiers of government. These, according to this article, are: Digital Era Automation, whose effects are yet to come and powerful societal forces combating discrimination and exclusion, thus favouring diversity in both the composition and several facets of civil services structure and policies.