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examine possible methods of eflfecting these proposals would,
however, require so lengthy a discussion, and would lead so far
afield into political questions, that it must be omitted from this
paper, and attention given to those ranges of the directing per-
sonnel which are free from all political complication.

With respect to the upper ranges of the directing personnel,
at once the simplest and most necessary measure for improving
the administrative calibre is the complete elimination of politics
in their selection. At present the hold of politics on the higher
administrative posts of the government is very irregularly dis-
tributed. It is most xmiform in the group of assistant secretaries
(which embraces also, of course, assistant attorneys-general and
assistant postmasters-general). All, as is well known, are polit-
ical appointees. In not a few cases, they are quite capable; but
the method of their selection affords no continuing guaranty
of their capability, nor does it insure the retention in office of
those whose capability is established.

The heads of the several bureaus and services are only in part
political appointees. The increase in the number of scientific
bureaus in recent years has steadily enlarged the number of
bureau chiefs who, originally selected solely for their profes-
sional standing, hold office virtually on good behavior though
nominally removable at the pleasure of the President. Of
the 44 heads of bureaus and services, about 25 now fall in
this nonpolitical class.^ Of the remaining 19, the status of 5 is
not yet fixed by tradition; while that of the other 14 is definitely
political. Of these, as of the assistant secretaries, some are of
satisfactory administrative calibre; but as with the assistant
secretaries this fact is, if not fortuitous, at least incidental.
The placing of all the bureau heads upon a strictly merit basis
is an obvious immediate need of the service.

* Of these, 10 are appointed by the heads of the department.



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224 THE AMEBICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW

In the departments at Washington political appointments in
the ordinary sense do not usually extend below the heads of the
bureaus or services, though here and there are found ''excepted"
places for which no good reason exists, and which a vigorous
civil service commission would long since have had swept away
by the President.

As applied to local offices the viciousness of the spoils system
has been much more pronounced and obvious than in the case of
the posts at Washington. The local posts are far greater in
number and are spread over the whole land, and in the smaller
places are likely to be captured by an obviously undesirable
type of ward politician, rather than by the more unctuous type
usually selected for the political post at Washington. More-
over, the local employee has a vote, while the Washington em-
ployee has not (or does not use it) ; and it is therefore especially
undesirable that the local competitive employee should be under
the direction of a local politician.

Until within recent years, it was the postmasters of the smaller
cities and large towns who typified the local federal political
officeholder. For some years a general improvement in the
calibre of this class of postmasters appears to have been going
forward; but the first definite formal step in the direction of
eliminating politics from their selection was taken by President
Wilson in his order of March, 1917, directing the civil service
commission to hold open, competitive examinations for all vacan-
cies in presidential postmasterships arising by death, resignation,
or removal, and binding himself to the nomination of the candi-
date rated highest unless good cause should appear for passing
him over in favor of the next on the list. The '' presidential"
postmasterships, it should be explained, are all those in the
first, second and third classes — that is, all whose annual sales
are $1900 or over. It thus embraces all but the small village
offices. There are some 10,000 "presidential" post offices and
under the law all must be filled by nomination of the President
and confirmation by the senate. The enormous scope of this
order of President Wilson's is thus obvious.



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THE FEDERAL PEB80NNEL PROBLEM 225

It should be understood, however, that the order has no appli-
cation to a vacancy created by the expiration of the four-year
term which the statutes prescribe for all presidential post-
masters. The official explanation for this on[iission is that
capable postmasters are reappointed at the expiration of their
four-year terms, and hence no examination is necessary; while
where other postmasters are removed before the end of their
four-year terms, examinations are held imder the order. Is this
the real reason or merely the good reason? Is the real reason
that the exclusion from the operation of the order of vacancies
arising by expiration leaves a comfortable margin of postmaster-
ships in each state in which senatorial courtesy may still disport
itself? The gratuitously detailed statistics of the operations of
the department, published in its annual report, throw no light
on this question.

The shape of the area still dominated by politics in the remain-
ing field services is, as in the departments at Washington, irreg-
ular. Some of the important field services are wholly under the
merit system; in others, the chief of each local office is a political
appointee. Generalizing, it might be said that in the newer
and the more technical services, the local chiefs are selected by
merit, while in the older and the more purely administrative
services they are political appointees. Examples of the former
class are the reclamation service and the forest service.

The principal services in which the chief local officers are still
political appointees are: the customs service, the internal revenue
service, the mint, assay and subtreasury services, the depart-
ment of justice (embracing district attorneys and marshals),
the public lands service, and the immigration service.

Such is the present state of the art of rewarding one's friends
in the higher levels of the federal administrative personnel.
What is the best method of attack for those who would see poli-
tics completely and finally driven out of the federal service?

The frontal attack would consist, of course, in abrogating the
'* advice and consent of the Senate,'' which is by statute required
for virtually all the posts just reviewed. Such a change would
place all these posts within the scope of the civil service law; but



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226 THE AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW

it would not necessarily throw them open to competition, as,
under the law, the President might still except them from exam-
ination (as he has done, for example, with national bank exam-
iners). Going a step farther in the same direction, it would be
well to provide for the appointment of all these officers by the
heads of the several departments instead of by the President.
Appointment by the President carries a deep-rooted tradition or
flavor of politics which of itself constitutes a tangible obstacle
to the establishment of the merit principle.

Such legislation should, of course, be accompanied by pro-
visions for the abolition of the four-year term (or other fixed
term) wherever it still obtains. The four-year term for local
officers is today a senseless survival of a practice thoughtlessly
legislated into existence at the beginning of the government for
the office of marshal, and subsequently from time to time ex-
tended to other local offices. The utter inconsistency of its
present statutory application should of itself be sufficient to
condemn it. Collectors of customs are appointed for a four-
year term, but collectors of internal revenue for an indefinite
term. It is a good example of the lack of principle and sound
policy which has throughout characterized the personnel legisla-
tion of Congress.

It cannot be contended that the mere abolition of the four-
year term will of itself tend to convert the posts affected from a
spoils to a merit basis. It is notorious that some positions held
by an indefinite tenure are fully as much the plaything of politics
as are those held for a fixed term; but it is certain that the merit
principle cannot firmly be established in any administrative
office so long as it rests upon a fixed term. The action of Presi-
dent Wilson in opening postmasterships to competition is much
in point here. So long as the four-year term remains it will be
difficult to induce experienced and capable postal employees to
enter the examination; for the chance of reappointment at the
expiration of the four-year term depends wholly upon the observ-
ance by the next administration (or even by the same adminis-
tration, should it remain in office) of a "policy'' declared by it
to exist but subject to no rule or official scrutiny.



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THE FEDERAL PERSONNEL PROBLEM 227

The abolition of the four-year term for local offices is clearly
then a measure upon which all may imite. As for the rest of
the legislative program outlined, questions may be raised. The
abolition of senatorial confirmation, and the transfer of appoint-
ing power from the President to department heads would be so
radical a step and so distasteful to politicians, particularly those
of the senate, that legislation embodying it coxAd be obtained, if
at all, only by a highly organized and costly propaganda sus-
tained over a considerable period. Such legislation was actually
recommended to Congress by President Taft in two successive
messages, but never made any real progress in Congress; and
neither the repeated recommendations of the civil service com-
mission nor the persistent though limited publicity of the Na-
tional Civil Service Reform League have served appreciably to
increase the probabilities of enactment. Undoubtedly, such a
legislative program could be forced through; but the forces
necessary to accomplish the work of forcing do not seem likely
to materialize.

A line of action which would seem to have greater promise of
results is to bring pressure persistently to bear upon the Presi-
dent to extend the merit principle to all of the offices in ques-
tion, as he already has to some; setting up, as far as practicable,
formal methods of selection, as has been done in the case of the
consular service and the presidential postmasterships. In thus
looking solely to the President for action, there is involved no
attempt to ignore Congress or the senate contrary to existing
constitutional or statutory provisions; for, aside from the inher-
ent discretion as to method of selection, which the possession
of the power of appointment vests in the President, it has been
the law since 1871, twelve years before the enactment of the
civil service law, that the President may ''prescribe such regula-
tions for the admission of persons into tjie civil service of the
United States as may best promote the efficiency thereof, and
ascertain the fitness of each candidate for the branch of the
service which he seeks to enter."

Once the President can be induced to set up a formal recogni-
tion of the merit principle in his nominations to these offices,



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228 THE AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW

"the advice and consent of the Senate'' will become as perfunc-
tory a ceremony as it has for decades been in the case of the
commissioning of army and navy officers, or surgeons of the
public health service. Under President Wilson's order of 1917,
there have to date been nominated, as a result of open competi-
tive examination, some 1400 postmasters. Aside from a few
exceptional instances where the question of whether the pro-
cedure required by the order and the regulations had been
observed, in no single case has any senator ventured to oppose
the confirmation of a nomination so made.

It may be thought that a system resting on executive order is
less stable and secure than one resting on the mandate of the
civil service law. Examination hardly confirms this view.
Even were the positions imder discussion to be brought, through
the abolition of senatorial confirmation, within the scope of
the civil service law, the determination of the method of their
selection (including the question of whether competition or
examination should be employed) rests wholly in the hands of
the President. The only qualification is that if examination
is provided it must be carried on imder the supervision of the
civil service commission. This requirement is indeed something
of an objection to the classification of the higher administrative
offices under the civil service law; for it is more than doubtful
whether examination under the supervision of the civil service
commission would be the best system of selection for those
offices, so far as they were not filled by promotion. Time does
not permit a discussion of various alternative methods of selec-
tion, some of them hardly yet tried, which might be applied to
the higher administrative posts.

The problem of selection for these posts is, of course, im-
mensely simplified if they are filled by promotion from within
the service, rather than by selection from outside; and in a
healthy personnel system promotion will always be the normal
inethod of filling these posts. It may be questioned, however,
whether the time has yet come in the federal service, were all
the higher posts put on a merit basis, where all could with cer-
tainty be filled as satisfactorily by promotion as by selection



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THE FEDERAL PERSONNEL PROBLEM 229

from outside. That condition normally exists only where pro-
motion to the top has long been the rule in the service, and has
thrown back its influence even to the process of recruitment,
resulting in the entrance of more capable men into the service to
begin with, and their retention in the ranks of subordinates and
minor executives until the time for major promotion arrives.
In many branches of the federal service the opportunity for
promotion has been so limited that the personnel most suitable
for major promotion has never entered the service, or entering,
has not remained. It is for these reasons that the rigid applica-
tion of the wholly sound canon that all posts, even the highest,
should be filled by promotion, is not practicable at the present
time throughout the federal service.

With respect to the local officers, one further change is neces-
sary. In some of the field services, there is no requirement or
even tradition that the local chief shall be a reddent of the state
or district in which his duties lie. In most, there is no legal
requirement, but there is a strong tradition. In a few, there is a
statutory requirement. Thus a collector of internal revenue
must be a resident of the coUectioA district to which appointed.

The requirement of local residence, whether statutory or
traditional, is, of course, closely associated with the treatment of
local offices as spoils. It is not found in any of the newer and
technical services in which the selection of local chiefs is wholly
on a merit basis. It has obviously no relation to and no origin
in the demands of efficient operation. If finds no counterpart
in the industrial world. It is a survival of the political a? opposed
to the administrative tradition in the filling of administrative
offices.

With the selection of the higher administrative officers solely
on a merit basis, and the abolition of all fixed terms and
residence requirements for local officers, the political factors
which now complicate the problem of seciuing an efficient
directing personnel will have been eliminated and the problem
will become almost wholly, as is the problem of the subordinate
personnel, a technical one — ^a problem of personal management.



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230 THE AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW

The technical problem of personnel management presents
two phases — ^what might be termed the substantive and the
adjective. What are the working conditions, in terms of com-
pensation, opportunity for advancement, social esteem, and
attractiveness of work, that the service offers? This question is
basic, and unless it is satisfactorily answered, no amount of
administrative machinery can save the personnel system from
failure. Once it is answered, the question arises as to the ma-
chinery and procedure to be employed for applsdng in detail the
principles thus defined. Here are presented questions which, if
less basic than the other, are more difficult of satisfactory solution.
The limitations of this paper will not, of course, permit even
the mere statement of the problems — even the major problems —
which arise under each of these heads. A brief indication of
two or three of the larger aspects is all that can be attempted.

Before entering upon a consideration of the specific problems
affecting the subordinate personnel of the government, it will
perhaps be as well to call attention to the grossly exaggerated
importance which is attached, in current popular thought, to the
case of the government clerk, and more particularly of the govern-
ment clerk at Washington. Unfortimately, there are available
no recent figures that will indicate with precision the proportion
and distribution of clerical employees in the service. Figures
bearing on this point were compiled in 1907, and while the
federal service has enormously expanded since then, it is safe to
assume that there has not been any substantial change in the
relative proportions and distribution of the various classes of
employees, clerical, mechanical, labor, professional, etc. The
1907 figures show that, if the postal service, which is of course
in a class by itself, be excluded, the clerical employees of the
government number less than 20 per cent of the whole, being
outnumbered by the mechanical employees, who comprise some
28 per cent, and being less than half as numerous as the sub-
clerical (that is, messengers, watchmen, etc.) and labor em-
ployees, and less than twice as numerous as the professional,
technical, and scientific employees. It is true that the figures
from which these percentages are derived embrace the war and



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THE FEDERAL PERSONNEL PROBLEM 231

navy departments, with their arsenals and navy yards employ-
ing the greater proportion of the mechanical employees above
noted as comprising 28 per cent of the whole. Even if these
two departments be excluded from consideration, however, the
clerical employees will be fomid in the 1907 figures to be con-
siderably under 25 per cent of the whole, with the professional
employees about 13 per cent, mechanical employees about 7
per cent, and the subclerical and labor employees over 45 per
cent. No thought regarding personnel problems is of value
which concentrates itself too exclusively upon the problems of
the clerk, and omits from consideration the large and more
rapidly growing class of professional, technical and scientific
employees, the enormous mechanical and labor forces, and such
miscellaneous employees as are foimd in the coast guard, in the
hospitals of the public health service, on the irrigation projects,
on the Indian reservations, in the lighthouses, and so forth.

In the basic matter of adequate compensation, the cardinal
difficulty has been the apparent tendency of Congress, inherited
• from the days of the spoils sjrstem, to regard the federal employee
as a feeder at the public crib — entitled to no sympathy to begin
with, and still less when selected by procedures in which congress-
men have no participation. This tendency has fortimately
weakened in recent years. A second factor is the helpless posi-
tion in which the average employee finds himself after some years
of service. Frequently he has no alternative but to remain in
the service, though grossly imderpaid when judged by any fair
standard. Since entrance rates have generally been sufficiently
high, and in some cases even generous, there has been little
difficulty ordinarily in recruiting the service.

At bottom, however, the current situation, which is, as is
notorious, characterized by absurdly low rates for the higher
technical and supervisory posts (as illustrated by the fact that
the engraver of the bureau of engraving and printing, whose
salary is not fixed by Congress, receives a salary measurably
higher than that fixed by law for the director of the bureau) is
the result of the total failure of Congress for the last half cen-
tury or more to make any attempt at a consistent, careful and



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232 THE AMEKICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW

comprehensive determination of equitable compensation rates.
Ignoring the repeated urgings of the civil service conamission
and the employees' organizations, and the plainest dictates of
administrative practice, it has left the determination of rates
wholly in the hands of the several appropriation committees,
each interested only in particular appropriations and none of
them having any especial interest in the general problem of the
federal personnel. Indeed, in neither house of Congress does
there exist a committee charged with responsibility for the
advancement of a comprehensive and progressive personnel pro-
gram for the administrative branch of the government.

The creation, by the act of March 1, 1919, of a joint commis-
sion on reclassification of salaries (applying only to the depart-
ments at Washington) and the creation, by act of February 28,
1919, of a similar commission for the postal service give promise
that a new order is beginning. Both these commissions are
limited by the terms of the acts creating them to an investiga-
tion of compensation rates only, but it is probable that both
will, in their reports, emphasize the need of the development of a
program embracing all phases of personnel administration.*
With reference particularly to compensation, experience seems
to demonstrate that not until there has been established an
administrative agency, specially charged with continuous cur-
rent supervision and control over matters of compensation
rates, can the fundamental and permanent rectification of
existing conditions be expected. The personnel of Congress,
the nature of its committee system, and the procedure of the
several committees themselves, all militate against any consis-
tent or well-worked-out personnel program, particularly in
respect to matters of compensation.

Closely related to the problem of adequacy of compensation,
but entirely distinct from it, is the matter of uniformity of

* Since this paper was written the joint commission on the reclassification of
salaries has rendered its report (March 12, 1920, H. Doc. 686, 66th Congress,
second session). As expected, the commission recommends not merely a com-
plete revision of salary rates, but the formulation of a comprehensive personnel
policy and the creation of a central personnel agency with adequate powers.



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THE FEDERAL PERSONNEL PROBLEM 233

compensation. Compensation may, generally speaking, be ade-
quate throughout the service, and yet there may exist a large
number of specific inequalities of compensation for the same or
similar classes or grades of work. Such inequalities exert a
depressing influence upon the morale of the personnel far in
excess of their mere number or the seriousness of the injustice
actually worked by them. In view of what has been said of the
method by which the present compensation rates in the federal
service have been developed, it need hardly be stated that flagrant
inequalities in compensation are found throughout the federal
service, and more particularly in the clerical and technical
services at Washington, where the nature of the duties does not
lend itself so readily to obvious classification as in the case of
most of the field services. The work of the joint commission on
reclassification of salaries will, of com^e, include also an attempt
to rectify these inequalities, though the problem is one of extreme
difficulty because of the adverse effect upon numbers of em-
ployees of long standing that such a program necessarily involves
if rigidly adhered to; while, if exceptions to the general scales
arrived at are permitted, to any great extent, the entire work is,
of course, jeopardized. The consistent solution of this phase of
the problem can be effected only by a permanent administrative



Online LibraryWestel Woodbury WilloughbyThe American political science review → online text (page 23 of 77)