Trump wants public servants to be “at-will” employees. It’s a bad idea.
In October 2020, Trump briefly implemented a similar plan — called “Annex F” — via Executive Order 13597, which President Biden rescinded in January 2021. Last month, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) Introduced a bill to fulfill Trump’s goal of making public servants employees “at will,” in a bid to make the government operate more like a private enterprise. Democrats railed against Schedule F when it was introduced and oppose its relaunch, arguing that public servants deserve legal buffers from politicians.
Which is better – a civil service shielded from politics by strict merit-based standards, or a civil service that answers only to the president? When social scientists study this question, they find that meritocratic government bureaucracies help protect against corruption, produce economic results for their nations, and contribute to democratic stability.
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What is a politicized bureaucracy?
Researchers distinguish two basic types of bureaucracies. In one system, codified rules define the duties of an official, subjecting those officials to rules and regulations that discourage and punish bribery and corruption. People are generally hired and fired based on merit, as defined by technical qualifications. They benefit from stable career paths, regardless of their individual political convictions. The German sociologist Max Weber called these systems “rational-legal” bureaucracies. The United States took this direction with the Pendleton Act in 1883, which ordered that government employees be hired on a competitive basis and prohibited their dismissal or demotion for political reasons. By 1920, a merit-based federal bureaucracy had largely solidified.
The American civil service is unusual. Most countries – such as Brazil, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia – feature what Weber called “heritage” states. They are also known as patronage systems. To get and keep a job, people need a personal connection to a patron, such as a political party leader. These bureaucrats must show that they are loyal to their boss and fulfill their wishes at work. As a result, the boss’s personal whims may guide a bureaucrat’s actions more than the need to carry out the responsibilities of the position. Public administration becomes steeped in politics.
Trump wanted to slash the federal government. But the federal agencies are doing just fine.
Patronage systems can unleash corruption
Social scientists find a variety of problems in patronage systems. Because heritage officials are less constrained by impersonal law, corruption can thrive. For example, before civil service reform in the United States, many bureaucrats had to donate 2% of their salary to fund the political campaigns of their bosses.
As the United States moved toward merit-based standards, corruption declined. Researchers have found an inverse relationship between meritocracy and corruption in countries around the world. The association remains even after weighing other factors that might affect corruption, such as a country’s wealth and level of democracy.
Civil service protections help insulate bureaucrats from political pressures, which facilitates what we consider good governance: less wasteful spending, better management, and more efficient services such as mail delivery.
When politicians erode these merit-based standards, they risk undermining essential government functions and causing effective administrators to flee to the private sector. Over time, people may come to view government not as something that provides public goods but one that distributes personal favors – turning elections from debates over government policies to competitions over who will distribute and receive patronage.
Biden inherited a broken government. Attracting a new generation of public servants will not be easy.
The benefits of merit-based bureaucracies
Because a meritocratic government operates under clear and calculable rules, Weber believed it enabled capitalism. Indeed, in the late 19th century, American business groups pushed for civil service reform for precisely this reason. Researchers have also linked sound legal institutions to higher economic growth in developing countries.
Furthermore, merit-based administration contributes to the rule of law, the cornerstone of democracy. Writing here at TMC last year, Walter Shaub argued that the federal civil service — more than congressional or executive branch investigators — helped prevent undemocratic actions when Trump behaved unlawfully.
As with any big topic, researchers continue to probe these relationships. For example, some wonder whether the positive effect of a merit-based public service on economic growth can be confined to certain historical periods. Others ask whether economic development leads to good institutions, and not the other way around. Still others are working to create better metrics to refine our knowledge.
Yet, overall, we have credible explanations for why meritocratic bureaucracies perform better than politicized systems. When considering revamping the civil service, consider that the US government already has about 4,000 political appointees in the federal bureaucracy. About a third of them require Senate approval. Various research suggests the major downsides of adding even more supporters to these political ranks.
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Ryan Saylor is an associate professor of political science at the University of Tulsa, who studies how creditors have pushed for meritocratic bureaucracies in Europe historically, and author of “Statebuilding in Boom Times: Commodities and Coalitions in Latin America and Africa(Oxford University Press, 2014).