American Civil Service Reform: Using France as a Model to Develop Administrative Statesmen in the Senior Executive Service

Article excerpt

Introduction

The American federal civil service has a long history of reform. (1) From the passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883 to the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978, the American federal personnel system has steadily evolved within the context of constitutional, political, and historical limitations. (2) Architects of the CSRA relied heavily on academic theory, examination of the British civil service, and private sector practices. (3) Despite mixed reviews, the general consensus is that it has been less than successful, particularly the Senior Executive Service (SES). (4) This legacy, together with the passage of The Department of Homeland Security Act of 2002, has produced renewed calls for civil service and SES reform.

This study attempts to broaden the scope of the current reform debate by examining the SES's present and future role in developing administrative statesmen, career senior executives who possess a unique capacity to define and pursue the public interest through their legitimate use of administrative discretion. (5) It first examines the defining foundational characteristics of the SES and reviews critical evaluations of its success. It then explores salient French institutions and practices that promote the development of French administrative statesmen who form an "elite corps" of trained experts that work closely with top politicians, manage the ministries, and compose the government. (6) Next, it offers a selective comparison between the American SES and French Higher Civil Service that reveals the most significant differences are structure and conceptions of the public interest. (7) This study then briefly addresses the most recent attempt to reform the American civil service, The Department of Homeland Security Act of 2002, which seeks to further privatize federal jobs and politicize the career SES, thus exacerbating the ability of career senior executives to function as administrative statesmen. It then suggests that the original design of the SES was fundamentally flawed. As a consequence, the wisdom and values of career SES executives are suppressed, obviating their unique ability to uniformly define and execute the public interest as administrative statesmen. Finally, selective adaptation and integration of those French institutional practices that seem useful to reforming the American federal civil service and the SES are discussed. (8)

American Senior Executive Service

As an integral feature of the CSRA, the SES represents a complete reform of merit. (9) Although previous attempts to reform the American higher public service met with significant opposition, stakeholders such as members of Congress, interest groups, administration officials, and senior executives "were encouraged to see in the SES what they wanted to see." (10) The SES strategically positions most top-level executives and experienced managers under the direct control of political executives. (11) Its design represents a presidentialist, or integrationist, bias that portrays administrative agencies and agency heads as unilaterally responsible to the chief executive within a hierarchical, pyramidal executive branch. It is thus understandable that "the professional and public administration community, with few exceptions, strongly endorsed the inclusion of political appointees and careerists in one system." (12) In principle, this support was instrumental to the Carter administration's calculated effort to increase direct political control over the federal civil service. (13)

Key provisions of the CSRA and the SES provide the chief executive with prodigious flexibility to exercise political leadership by making career senior executives more accountable to presidential responsiveness through politically-appointed superiors. The act consolidated all GS 16-18 positions and Levels IV and V of the Executive Schedule into the SES. It abolished position classification for senior executive jobs and established a rank-in-person, or "generalist," system. …