At the very pinnacle of the progressive agenda to make government competent stands civil service administration — the process that produces the scientific experts required to staff the government and deliver its promised welfare state benefits effectively and efficiently to the people.
Not everyone was convinced it would work, the old Democratic city machines being especially suspicious of the whole undertaking. It’s most eloquent, if dialectally differently abled, critic was the legendary Plunkitt of Tammany Hall as William L. Riordon portrayed him in his immortal treatise of the same name.
Reflecting on the need to staff New York City government with good men in the early days of the 20th century, Democratic Party leader George Washington Plunkitt ruminated: "There are 10,000 good offices, but we can't get at more than a few hundred of them. How are we goin’ to provide for the thousands of men who worked for the Tammany ticket? It can't be done.
"I know more than one young man in past years who worked for the ticket and was just overflowin' with patriotism, but when he was knocked out by the civil service humbug he got to hate his country and became an Anarchist.
"I have good reason for sayin' that most of the Anarchists in this city today are men who ran up against civil service examinations. Isn't it enough to make a man sour on his country when he wants to serve it and won't be allowed unless he answers a lot of fool questions about the number of cubic inches of water in the Atlantic and the quality of sand in the Sahara Desert?"
Good boss Plunkitt need not have been concerned. By the middle of the century, the spoils system was back in operation, although not the one that had supported his poor Irish constituents. For the past 34 years the United States Civil Service has mothballed its merit-based civil service examinations and reintroduced spoils.
I was actually present when merit was abandoned, as head of the civil service agencies transition team for Ronald Reagan in 1980. As the Jimmy Carter presidency was winding down that year, the Department of Justice and U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) lawyers colluded in a “consent decree” with their private civil rights activist buddy lawyers to end civil service IQ examinations because minorities did not score as highly on them, claiming discrimination simply because of the results alone.
I was unable to convince our lawyers to contest the decree so the court ordered an end to IQ exams for a decade. But the ban has been extended to this very day.
Obviously, one cannot run an institution, even a government isolated from market discipline, without some assessment of applicants. So merit exams were replaced with various “tests” based on resumes, self-assessments, and recommendations. The current test is called USAJobs and is a self-assessment of one’s own skills and qualifications.
Obviously, no one fails when assessing oneself although the suspicion is that honest applicants are penalized for more accurate evaluations. But clever insiders discover the key words that enhance their odds of being hired.
Obviously, such exams hardly narrow the search for good employees. Agencies that are serious about finding qualified scientists, engineers, security agents, etc., are overwhelmed by applicants and they cannot tell who will actually be qualified to do the work. There are enough breeches of White House security and FBI forensic incompetence already.
What do the bureaucrats do? They select people they know. If one cannot use a merit test, what else could one do? In fact, the overwhelming number of mid-to-upper level vacancies in the federal government is filled by what are called “name requests.” It is a spoils system but of bureaucratic acquaintances rather than political pals. Nepotism is still illegal in Washington but how about accepting some friend’s relatives if she will do the same for you? Who could tell?
The reason for this civil service history lesson is that after all these years OPM is planning to introduce a merit examination that it calls USAHire. It has been quietly testing it since 2012 in a few agencies for a dozen job descriptions. The tests actually have multiple choice questions with only one correct answer. Some questions actually require essay replies — questions that change regularly to depress cheating.
OPM deserves high praise for this audacity. Unfortunately, it will not last. The federal unions have now been informed and the old dynamics will inevitably return. Test results will soon reveal that some minority or another will not pass the exams at levels as high as others. Discrimination will be charged. And the government will relent and go back to its old bureaucratic buddy spoils system.
As Plunkitt fully understood, politics changes but human nature does not.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of "America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution," and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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