Magazine article The American Conservative

Test Case: Aptitude Exams Raised the Caliber of Civil Servants-And the Objections of the Left

Magazine article The American Conservative

Test Case: Aptitude Exams Raised the Caliber of Civil Servants-And the Objections of the Left

Article excerpt

YOU MIGHT THINK that liberals who want to expand government and conservatives who want to shrink it could at least agree to improve how it works. Yet good government projects, such as boosting the quality of the federal workforce, have largely dropped out of discussion despite ample evidence that government no longer functions as well as it once did. In its mid-20th century prime, the federal government matched up reasonably well in efficiency and effectiveness against, say, Sears-Roebuck. Today, it's blown away by Wal-Mart's relentless improvements.

For example, in June, while the Senate was blithely considering mandating a convoluted new immigration system for the federal bureaucracy to administer, the State Department's nearly century-old responsibility for issuing passports was melting down under the strain of merely a moderate increase in demand predictably caused by a law passed three years before. In an era of cheap networked computing, many Americans still had their summer travel plans ruined by federal incompetence.

Everything about the federal government is extraordinarily complicated, so there are many plausible explanations, for its current malaise.

Democrats have denounced Bush administration appointments. Indeed, the latest political picks seem prone to "marketing major post-modernism," the assumption picked up in college that some egghead in France proved there's no such thing as truth, so there's no need to feel guilty about shamelessly spinning everything for maximum political benefit. Still, there are roughly 600 civil servants for each presidential appointee, so the nefarious impact of the thin top layer can be overstated.

Less debated is what Steve Nelson, director of the Office of Policy and Evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board, a federal watchdog agency, calls the "human capital crisis" facing the federal civilian workforce of nearly two million (not counting the Post Office).

Neither party has much incentive to tackle the problem. Democrats don't want to mention worker ineptitude because that raises doubt about expanding government's power over health-care and other areas. Republicans don't want public confidence in government to increase because they want to expand the outsourcing of federal duties to for-profit firms.

Clearly, growing economic inequality leaves the civil service hard pressed to compete against Goldman Sachs's bonuses and Google's stock options, and ameliorating the pay gap would be expensive. Much cheaper, yet unthinkable in the current climate, would be for the federal government to do a better job of choosing among applicants by employing a selection tool used by both colleges and the military: standardized testing.

The feds once had an excellent test for entry-level applicants. One of the last malignant relics of the Carter administration is the enduring hash it made of civil-servant hiring by abolishing the Professional and Administrative Career Examination (PACE).

That this disastrous step has disappeared down the memory hole exemplifies the reigning prejudice in modern America against publicly discussing how best to pick people. In private, selection is increasingly an obsession, with the ever-growing competition to win admission to elite colleges (and even elite preschools). Ironically, one of the most popular hobbies to emerge in recent decades has been "fantasy football," which is nothing but selection: fans draft players and then see whose "team" has the best statistics each Sunday. Yet nobody wonders about how to select better civil servants.

It will never be an easy job. While the 19th-century federal workforce was "an army of clerks," the need for technically skilled bureaucrats has accelerated since the Progressive Era, with new agencies like the FDA, SEC, NASA, and EPA needing high-end talent. The Volcker Commission on Public Service reported in 2003, "In 1950, 62 percent of the basic federal workforce was in GS grades 1-5, with only 11 percent in the top five grades; by 2000 those relationships were reversed: 15 percent of the federal workforce was in the bottom five grades, compared to 56 percent in the top. …

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