The British Civil Service

MR. EATON’S work on Civil Service in Great Britain,1 which was undertaken in his official capacity as chairman of the Civil Service Commission, and on the request of President Hayes, is in style and matter to be classed among our best political histories. A short introduction by George William Curtis most ably shows the present evil state of our own civil service, and Mr. Eaton steps immediately in medias res, relating how all the leading nations from England to Russia have long since made great reforms in their civil service, save the United States, which is just turning to the subject. The cause of our backwardness, which Mr. Eaton asks rather than gives, is mainly to be found in the great productivity of our labor, which causes us to throw all our energies into production, and to be careless of those saving methods which far more than purely political considerations have been the cause of civil service reform on the Continent, and which have had considerable effect in England. Again, our youthful and ardent nature dislikes the mechanism which the system of competitive examinations seems to entail on the civil service of Europe, and, having had no history of our own to tell us what a tyranny that of the majority may become, we have drifted into absolute party government without a fear. Now, however, Mr. Eaton considers that “ a more sober and introspective mood has lately come over the public mind, which is highly favorable to a reform in our administration, and we may reasonably expect that the influence of the reform sentiment will continue to gain strength.”

Our politician claims that the spoil system is a necessary condition to the existence of our government by parties, and that Great Britain is so differently constituted from our own country that the experience of the former cannot be applied to us. Mr. Eaton therefore gives his intention of showing the great similarity of party government in both countries, and that the abuses of patronage " were in full vigor under despotic kings two centuries before this continent was discovered, and four centuries before party government existed.” From no other country than England, Mr. Eaton rightly claims, ean we better see the stages through which we must pass ere we obtain a reformed civil service; for England is most like us, is older than we are, and has the largest civil service known, and the widest experience in that direction. Mr. Eaton then finds that in the early history of England civil places were often hereditary, and were given and openly sold by the king. But later the people began to complain of bad appointments, and in the Magna Charta we see the first civil service rule, which made the king promise that “ we will not make any justices, constables, sheriffs, bailiffs, but of such as know the law of the realm and mean primary justice in this country.” The second phase was when the places were no longer hereditary, but were given under the spoil system. This was an advance, being the necessary stage through which the government must pass before a non-partisan service could exist. Cromwell was the great initiator of the partisan spoil system, and from his day until 1855 that system existed, though under conditions continually improving. During the reigns of Charles II. and James II. bribery and corruption under the partisan spoil system were the highest, and the civil service was in a stale most deplorable. But the reign of William III. was the beginning of improvement; the tenure of judges was now made during good behavior, and executive officials under the responsible ministry were no longer allowed seats in Parliament. The bribery of members still existed, and in the time of Walpole there was general despair that government could ever be carried on without open or concealed bribery. But the advance steadily proceeded, and by the time of George IV. open bribery of members ceased. Now began the contest against that form of bribery more concealed, but more injurious, than the bribery of money. — that of patronage. Mr. Eaton has well told the struggle between those who controlled or received the benefits of the patronage system and the reformers sustained by the force of public opinion, in which the latter were so successful. Those who despair of civil service reform in the United States should compare the different conditions of that service in England in 1853 and in 1870. In the former year Sir Charles Trevelyan and Sir Stafford Northcote made their famous report, which gave a condition of the public service in comparison with which our own seems almost perfect. Deadness and incompetency were the prevailing characteristics of the service, while sickly, stupid, and often half-idiotic sons of the influential drew pay for almost worthless services. But oven at that time removal from office for political opinions was hardly known in England. And here lies the difference between the United States and England : the struggle in the latter country has been greatly a struggle for a more efficient civil service ; but our service to-day is by no means wretched ; the general life and activity of the people have been sufficient to furnish an active service despite the evils of patronage. With us the evil is mainly a political one; it is the power of the machine in politics. And this is harder to combat than the inefficiency, on account of the resulting indifference of the people. The gain to the average individual from civil service reform is slight, while the loss to the politician and the office seeker is great. As the latter give their whole efforts to retain the present system, and as the public can give but little time to reform, the result is, as we should expect, that while the majority of the country deem reform necessary and good, no steps in its direction are taken. But the more turbulent aspect of our politics is causing us to seek means of restricting the power of the majority, and this perhaps more than any other cause will effect during the next decade substantial reforms in our civil service.

The famous struggle by which the middle class of England forced upon unwilling ministries continual reforms in the civil service ended in 1870, when Gladstone, who had always been in favor of the reform, made open competition by examination the only means of entrance into the civil service of Great Britain. Since that time investigations have been made into the working of the system by committees from Parliament and the executive in 1873, 1874, and 1875, and of these Mr. Eaton says, “ Nor in the immense mass of testimony taken in 1874 and 1875 any more than in that of 1873 can I find anything tending to show personal corruption on the part of any officer, or any feeling that such corruption existed in the public service.” The system has become now almost universally popular, and the civil service commission will doubtless become permanent.

Mr. Eaton has given a good description of the esteem in which a civil officer is held in England, while here the position is the least esteemed of all respectable and well-paid employments. The system has increased the number of women in the service of the government, and it need hardly be said that there are no official assessments and no illegitimate use of official power in elections. If the argument is raised that the system is impracticable and is not used by private corporations, Mr. Eaton replies that such large corporations as the Bank of England, the Westminster Bank, and others have long used the examinations with success.

The great objection to the reform is one which Mr. Eaton has not touched, nor have we seen it put forward by the politician. It is the danger we are in at present of restricting by excessive examinations our free growth. Competition in examinations ultimately forces the examiner to be so severe in his requirements that the whole powers of those who are examined must be for years exerted to succeed in the examination. This evil is growing fast upon us, and has had already injurious effects upon students in England and in our own country. Without doubt, much of the injury is due to an evil system of examinations, which will in time be remedied ; but for the present this reform will increase the tendency of reducing men to a general average by the grinding process of education. Yet the examination system, with all its faults, faults which are capable of correction, is better for our civil service than its present polity, where political manipulation and sycophancy are too often the essentials of obtaining and retaining office.

  1. Civil Service in Great Britain. By DORMAN B. EATON. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.