The Public Interest

The civil service: a meritless system?

E. S. Savas & Sigmund G. Ginsburg

Summer 1973

THE nation’s basic civil service law was written in 1883, following the assassination of President Garfield by a disgruntled iob seeker. The goal at the time was both noble and urgent: to assure that the merit principle, rather than the patronage principle, would be used for the selection and promotion of federal employees. Subsequently, in reaction to the excesses of the spoils system which had prevailed for the preceding half-century, a civil service reform movement swept the land, spreading through states, counties, cities, and school systems during the next few decades.  Today, the so-called merit system—the name given to the elaborate web of civil service laws, rules, and regulations which embrace the merit principle---covers more than 95 per cent of all permanent federal (civilian) employees, all state and county employees paid by federal funds, most state employees, many county employees (particularly in the Northeastern states), most employees in more than three fourths of America’s cities, and almost all full-time policemen and firemen.

Download a PDF of the full article.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.