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A Look Back on the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Marc Boyd
December 23, 2022

Nearly 45 years after President Carter signed the landmark Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, the work of perfecting a meritocratic, non-partisan and appropriately compensated federal civil service is unfinished. But the legacy of the CSRA as (for now) the final major overhaul of the federal workforce is undeniable. In today’s hyper-partisan political climate, this milestone reform stands as one of our nation’s most important guardrails against the threat of autocracy—one that took centuries to realize but that could be undone in mere weeks or months.  

Many short- and longer-term factors combined to make the CSRA possible, but the most important and immediate catalyst was the Watergate scandal. As has been widely observed over the last half-century, Watergate was a turning point in the history of the American public’s faith in its government. In combination with the publication of the Pentagon Papers just a few years earlier and the widely held dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War, Watergate poured gasoline on an already building wave of mistrust and pessimism in American public life. This appetite for change, as the Carter Administration perceived it, was exacerbated by the fact that, by the later 1970s, a very real atrophy had set in throughout a bloated and dysfunctional federal service that demanded a shake-up.

Nearly a hundred years since the Pendleton Act of 1883 had established the merit system in the United States, the federal civil service of the seventies had grown massive and complex beyond any 19th century imagination. The United States Civil Service Commission, created by Pendleton and consisting of between three and seven members, had evolved into an enormously powerful body overseeing every aspect of personnel administration, creating, investigating and adjudicating all hiring rules and regulations for almost 3 million federal workers. While its century of rulings and decisions had succeeded in ending the spoils system, over time the Commission had also made it nearly impossible to remove employees who were actually ineffective; in one year in the 1970s, the Commission removed only 226 such employees.  

Because of the vast protections the Commission had granted career status employees over the decades, there was also a growing fear that the civil service was insulated from the directives of public officials, that, as researchers Patricia Ingraham and Carolyn Ban observed, ‘the lack of responsiveness to elected political leaders also indicated a general lack of responsiveness to the citizenry.’  Another problem area was the written tests administered by the Commission, which were frequently shown to be structurally biased against minorities and people of color. Meanwhile, managers were limited in their tools to promote or fast-track employees who did their jobs well, further eroding morale and the overall quality of work. Finally, the lack of protections for waste and inefficiency whistleblowers rendered such actions virtually non-existent.

One of the most important accomplishments of the CSRA was to open the door for the relatively rapid ascent of high-performing workers due to increased competitiveness and better performance evaluation. As one observer notes, while the merit system had been in place for nearly a century, the CSRA of 1978 was “the first statutory expression of merit principles” in the United States. That is, the Act specifically identified for the first time that decisions on the hiring and elevation of classified workers should be made specifically on the basis of skill. It also, for the first time, codified federal hiring regulations that valued diversity (at least in theory) and guaranteed equal pay for equal work. Most significantly of all, the Act dissolved the Civil Service Commission, which had been the sole authority on all of these matters since its establishment in the 1880s, dividing its functions between the new Merit Systems Protection Board and Office of Personnel Management. In the years that followed, these successor agencies made further changes to hiring, promotion and disciplinary practices.

The CSRA did not start or finish the job of preserving non-partisan civil service in this country but, taken together, its reforms represented the great leap forward for the ideal of meritocracy in the nation’s history. So what of future reform? By the numbers anyway, we are about due for a fourth overhaul, with each of the previous three upheavals occurring approximately every half-century. The appetite in Washington for yet another reinvention of the federal service is virtually nonexistent, but there are signs that this may be changing—or perhaps that it should. During the dying days of the Trump Administration, for example, there was an attempt to reclassify thousands of federal employees to a proposed new schedule that would have dramatically increased the number of career status positions that could be dismissed and replaced with political appointees.

Ultimately, and to the relief of many feds and political scientists alike, the executive order instituting these changes was rescinded by the Biden Administration before taking effect. But the episode serves as an important reminder that the federal civil service is, like all large institutions, merely the sum of the people who comprise and oversee it, subject to the whims of individuals. And while the end of the current merit system, which this action would have made a real possibility, is difficult to fathom, it would have been relatively easy to bring about. More than four decades after the CSRA, this important element of our republican system is still something we cannot take for granted and which our leaders must take great care to protect.

Author: Marc Boyd is a federal civil servant and former Presidential Management Fellow. Boyd has held appointments with the United States Air Force, Space Force, and Department of Housing and Urban Development and holds a Master of Public Administration from CUNY Baruch College. He also serves in the Rhode Island Air National Guard. He can be reached at [email protected].

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