The Case of Civil Service

Armies and corporations were not the only organizations that grew to immense size in the modern world. Governments also became very large because of the rapid expansion in size and complexity of the societies they governed. As governments got big, they, too, found that they could no longer function with outdated practices. In traditional agrarian societies, the government was nothing more than the king's household and court. Such needed functionaries as clerks, accountants, and tax collectors were servants of the king equal in status to his cooks, grooms, and butlers. When the king needed a general, an advisor, a chief justice, or an administrator of the treasury, he asked one of the noblemen in his court to do the job. These noblemen did not regard a government post as an occupation or even as a full-time activity. Often they had no special training and little aptitude for their government duties beyond their noble birth and their social graces.

Such a system worked because governments did little governing. Beyond extracting taxes from the populace, maintaining some semblance of public order, and defending the realm against invaders, there was little for governments to do. After all, more than 90 percent of the population were peasants leading quiet lives of rural toil. No complex laws, no large regulatory agencies, and no swarms of government experts were needed. Indeed if the central government had disappeared, people in outlying districts would not have noticed for a long while.

With the growth of population and of cities, the complex divisions of labor, and the development of technology, agrarian governments found it increasingly difficult to control their societies. Indeed, modern societies require more control than agrarian societies do.

Governments adopted much the same solutions as did armies and industries. Organizations were created specifically to perform government functions in an orderly and efficient manner, and these organizations were staffed by persons specially trained to carry out their duties. In fact, staffing governmental positions caused the greatest conflict. Kings were accustomed to rewarding their loyal and valued friends with government positions. Early democratic governments continued this practice -- the party or political faction in control of the government appointed its favorites to office. When the government changed hands, government officeholders were also changed.

Thus, when Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States in 1801, he dismissed hundreds of Federalists appointed by Presidents Washington and Adams and replaced them with his supporters. This practice is known as the spoils system -- the spoils, or benefits, of public office go to the supporters of winning politicians The spoils system probably reached its height in the United States during the presidency of Andrew Jackson in 1829, when thousands of officeholders were replaced

When government is based on the spoils system, disorganization arises from so much turnover and people are prevented from making a career of government service. The administration of government organizations is forever left in the hands of untrained novices. To combat this problem, governments adopted merit systems for government employment -- a practice often referred to as civil service. Civil service systems base government hiring and promotion practices on merit. People are recruited on the basis of their educational and occupational qualifications and by successfully competing with others on a written examination. When a government wants accountants, it hires trained accountants with the highest scores on the civil service examination rather than the brother-in-law of some politician. What Moltke learned was needed for modern war and what Gustavus Swift had discovered about business, modern government also put into practice a carefully designed organizational system operated by specially selected and trained people.