Myths of Civil Service and Other Fairy Tales: A Long-Time Civil Servant and Former Deputy Director of the US Office of Personnel Management Opines on What We Need to Know about Public Service before Altering Our Expectations of Government

By Colvard, James E. | The Public Manager, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Myths of Civil Service and Other Fairy Tales: A Long-Time Civil Servant and Former Deputy Director of the US Office of Personnel Management Opines on What We Need to Know about Public Service before Altering Our Expectations of Government


Colvard, James E., The Public Manager


Robert Fagin's letter to the editor in the Fall 2002 issue is one of the best-written assessments of what needs to change for governmental reform that I have ever read. It is candid, concise, and correct. It inspired me to put together some thoughts about myths of civil service and the federal government that I think need to be dispelled before we can look at the federal government differently.

The Myth of Merit

There is a belief that if individuals are selected for the civil service on the basis of an examination, interview, or some other "objective" form of assessment, rather than "employed at will," that they are hired on the basis of merit. The presumption is that they are more qualified than those not selected. While the person hired under the "merit system" may be the best qualified, the "merit system" does not ensure that. There is no objective way to determine performance on the job prior to someone doing the job. There are of course certain surrogate measures, such as test scores or college grades, and there is nothing wrong with using them, but they do not ensure the best will be selected. While these measures look at potential, they do not include work habits and personal attitude, which ultimately determine the use of the potential.

The only way to determine performance is to observe the person on the job where the application of potential can be observed. The current system has a one-year probation period, which is not often exercised. If that probation period were extended to three or five years it might be more effectively used in determining the "merit" of new employees. This is not unlike the university system where new professors must perform for some years before they are eligible for tenure. While all the professors come in with the proper academic credentials, their ability to teach and conduct research must be proven on the job.

Corollary to the idea that people hired under "objective" criteria have "merit" is the idea that people selected "at will," such as political appointees, are without "merit." While many political appointees may not have totally appropriate backgrounds for the positions in which they are placed, many do. The process is not the determinant; the judgment of the selecting official is the determinant. The "jerk to jewel ratio" is about the same among civil servants as it is among political appointees.

The Myth of a "Career System"

There is a belief that if you are hired into the federal government under the civil service system, that you have a "career" with the federal government. Nothing could be further from the truth; the only thing that civil service has in common with a career system is that it takes approximately 30 years to qualify for retirement.

Job System

The federal civil service system is a "job" system. Individuals are hired into a "job" based on the position description for that job. The rank is in the job, not the individual, and if the individual moves, he or she assumes the rank of the new job position description. They, as individuals, have no rank. In this system they are responsible for their own development. While the organization where they are employed may support their development, it does not actively shape and control it. In a "job" system, a person can hire in at any level based on qualifications to do the job.

Career System

In a "career system," individuals are selected by the organization to begin at the bottom and work their way up through an organizationally-defined career path. The organization manages and shapes their careers to meet the projected needs of the organization. Examples of career systems are the military and the State Department's Foreign Service. Within a "career system," the individual attains rank as he or she advances. That rank belongs to the person, not the position description. The organization places people in positions appropriate to their rank. …

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Myths of Civil Service and Other Fairy Tales: A Long-Time Civil Servant and Former Deputy Director of the US Office of Personnel Management Opines on What We Need to Know about Public Service before Altering Our Expectations of Government
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