3-Minute Civics: What is the civil service?

For the Monitor
Published: 12/22/2019 6:30:13 AM

A lot of rumors, accusations and assorted discussions have circulated in every form of media over the past few years regarding the people who make up America’s civil service. But what, exactly, is the civil service? Who are the people who make it up, and what do they do?

In its most basic terms, the federal civil service is the U.S. government’s civilian workforce. There are a few different ways to define it, but for purposes of this column, let’s consider it to be the approximately 2 million people working across the federal government’s executive branch, both in the U.S. and abroad, to carry out the business of the country. (Full disclosure: I served in the civil service in 1996-97 when I worked at the U.S. Department of Justice in the Attorney General’s Honors Program.)

The civil service began with passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883, enacted to end the spoils system that had determined who won positions in the federal government up until that time. The new system favored merit-based competition over party loyalty and patronage. As the government grew, calls to address its increased size, discriminatory practices and other employment issues led to passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA), which established the primary components of the system that exists today.

Still with me? A few more important details:

Today’s civil service is divided into the competitive service, the excepted service and the senior executive service. A large majority of civil service jobs fall under the auspices of the nonpartisan competitive service, where hiring practices, compensation, benefits, protections, causes for dismissal, etc., follow highly regulated rules.

For example, the competitive civil service pay scale consists of 15 levels and 10 steps within each level, with rules and recommendations governing how employees move through the system.

Approximately one-third of today’s civil service work in the excepted service. These are often people who have very specialized knowledge and/or come into their positions to serve with a particular presidential administration.

The senior executive service is composed of high-level administrators who manage offices and projects. They are governed by a separate regulatory structure from those working in the other two services, and they can play an “intermediary role” between the career professionals and the political appointees at the top of a presidential administration.

What has been the purpose of this brief yet technical history lesson? It was prelude to this point:

America’s civil service – particularly the competitive and senior executive services described above – are largely composed of people doing their jobs. Most people who work in these agencies, be they employees of the Department of the Interior, the General Services Association, the Bureau of Justice Statistics or some other agency, do not come to their employment for political purposes. Rather, the vast majority of civil servants enter into their jobs for personal career prospects, for the chance to serve their country and to make a difference, and/or because they already have substantive knowledge and there is a need they can fill.

For many civil servants, even as they advance in experience and pay levels, they could choose to leave and make more money in the private sector. Some do make that choice. But others prefer to remain in government posts because their sense of positive contribution outweighs what they would gain in financial reward in the private sector.

And when these employees remain in government posts, amassing expertise and contributing their skills and knowledge to the country, they often do so through multiple presidential administrations – both Republican and Democratic. They are professionals, just like in the private sector, and they know how to do their jobs.

This is not to say that exceptions do not exist. The federal bureaucracy is an enormous body, and it’s inevitable that there will here and there be employees who harbor ill will, an interest in political manipulation, some personal grudge, laziness, etc. Fortunately, provisions exist for dealing with these situations: the Hatch Act restricts the political activities of many federal employees, and remedies are available when employees otherwise abuse their positions and/or the public trust.

But there is no cause to tarnish the vast majority of the civil servants who work daily on behalf of their country as being anything less than the dedicated professionals that they are. Wholesale attempts to purge agencies of their professional employees are done at the country’s risk; drained of an entire agency’s knowledge base, the U.S. executive branch is then left open to being preyed upon by interest groups and donors who hope to grow their own influence in that agency’s issue areas.

Experienced professionals are a guardrail against moneyed or other undue interests; they are a support beam of our democracy.

So when you hear the names of our country’s career professionals dismissed or spoken with derision, it is appropriate to receive that information with a little skepticism. You don’t have to take it from me: Do a “3-Minute Civics” search of your own. How long has the target of vilification served her country? Has she served with distinction? Is she knowledgeable in her area of expertise? Has she worked during more than one presidential administration? And if the accusations are aimed at an entire agency, well, look that up, too. Examine what the agency in question does and try to figure out how much expertise is needed to make the agency run.

Governing, like any other profession, requires dedication, skill, knowledge and, at the higher levels, some experience if it is to be done well.

This is your civil service. It works for you. For your sake and for the sake of the people who make it up, it’s worth understanding the basics of how that service works.

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett lives in Bow.)


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