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Nothing Happens By Accident

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

By Anna Marie Schuh
February 21, 2019

Recently I came across a research effort to evaluate civil service effectiveness in thirty one countries. The study, published in July 2017 as a collaboration between the University of Oxford Blavatnik School of Government and the Institute for Government, involved developing an effectiveness index that evaluated four attributes (integrity, openness, capabilities and inclusiveness) and eight core functions (policymaking, fiscal and financial, regulation, risk/crisis management, human resources, tax administration, social security administration and digital services). Americans have a complicated relationship with government. We distrust our government and concurrently think ours is the best in the world. So the fact that the United States ranked 10th in this study after Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Norway and the Republic of Korea made me ask: Why was the United States only tenth?

The research did not attempt to evaluate the quality of the people in the civil service. Instead, it reviewed attributes of the systems and processes that each government uses to govern. Because of my disappointment in the United States ranking, and to get a better understanding of that ranking, I displayed the United States numbers for the 12 attributes and processes against the top and bottom ranking countries for each element. Below is that display.

Overall, the above array provides little surprise in the countries that ranked at the top and bottom. Countries at the top tended to be older, more stable democracies while those at the bottom tended to be newer, less stable governments. Obviously, time and government stability are important factors in the effectiveness of civil service.

However, reviewing the strongest and weakest United States elements does provide insight into the United States ranking. The strongest United States element is policy making. Only the United Kingdom has a stronger process. The report notes that policy making is a central executive function in all governments. In creating the index for the element, the researchers emphasized development and coordination of policy across government, as well as monitoring the implementation process. While the United States policy process is complicated, it draws tremendous creativity and strength from the innovation that bubbles up from state and local governments. These innovations get considered at the national level where the most effective ideas often find a nationwide home.

Not surprisingly, the weakest United States process is social security administration. This element includes the administration of all social programs that help people cope with life’s major risks. Unlike many other countries, in the United States much of this assistance has previously come from employers. However, the trend in United States business has been to change the relationships with employees (e.g., substituting full-time permanent employment with temporary workers or independent contractors) in a way that eliminates benefits such as retirement and insurance, resulting in fewer people with a sufficient social safety net.

Human resource management was also a United States low-scoring element. Human resource management is a mission-support function that focuses on meritocracy and how effectively civil servants are attracted, managed and developed. Performance management, recruitment and rewards are key features in the researchers’ human resource management element. In assessing this element, the researchers used expert opinion to develop a dataset that covered dimensions such as politicization, professionalization, openness and impartiality. Although the primary focus was on merit recruitment, the researchers also assessed whether salaries of senior officials were sufficiently comparable to the private sector to attract quality staff. The researchers readily admit that the qualitative nature of the data was not ideal and did not take into account all the factors that might make an organization an attractive employer. Still, being in the bottom half of this element supports the prevailing notion that the United States civil service system needs improvement.

The final low-scoring element was tax administration, which is a direct service delivery function and involves the efficiency and effectiveness of the tax collection process. This index measures collection costs data, the time it takes businesses to pay taxes and the rate of e-filing. This low score is likely the result of the chronic underfunding of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

This is just one study. There are others and none are perfect. Still, reviewing such studies provides improvement ideas. Franklin Roosevelt said, “In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens you can bet it was planned that way.” As the administration considers change to social support systems, civil service processes and tax administration, change planning should consider expert studies that surface specific improvement needs. If the change process does not include such information, that is not an accident.


Author:Anna Marie Schuh is currently an Associate Professor and the MPA Program Director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last Federal assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program.

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