Does It Pay to Serve the United States?

THE most recent issue of that inspiring government biennial, the Blue Book, otherwise known as the Official Register, sets forth the fact that the permanent employees in the Federal Civil Service, exclusive of those connected with the Post Office Department, but including the officers of the Army and Navy, number approximately one hundred and forty-six thousand. If the postal employees be included, and also the enlisted men in the military and naval service, the total number of persons on the federal pay-roll approaches surprisingly near half a million, which means that in 1910 about one American citizen in every 178 depends upon the national government for employment and support. As an occupation, therefore, the civil service of the United States is more important numerically than many of the more prominent callings, — such, for example, as the great profession of teaching, in which the census found but 446,000 persons employed in 1900. The employees of the federal government are much more numerous than all the physicians, clergymen, and lawyers in the United States combined, and almost as many, indeed, as the aggregate of all the manufacturers, officials, bookkeepers, and accountants, who together numbered only about half a million persons in 1900, if the occupation returns of the Twelfth Census are to be believed.

The prominence to which the government service as an occupation has thus attained, and the frequent and widely heralded examinations held by the Civil Service Commission, justify the serious question: Does it pay to accept civil employment under the federal government?

The answer depends largely on the sex of the inquirer. If the questioner is feminine, the reply should be, ‘Yes.’

In spite of the increasing participation of women in the activities of business and professional life, self-support is at best hard and unremunerative. The government service offers work which is reasonably easy and agreeable, considerate treatment, generous vacations, sick-leave allowance, and a living salary. The girls in the department stores of the great cities often receive no more pay than do the floor-scrubbers in the department buildings at Washington.

If, on the other hand, the inquirer is a man, and a young one, the answer depends principally on his own temperament, ambition, and ability. If he is easy-going, indolent, and of moderate ability, possibly the government service may prove a welcome haven of refuge from failure and actual want. For such a man, a small income, so long as it is certain and attended by moderate exertion and little anxiety, is the most desirable end to be attained. If, however, the would-be servant of the United States is alert, energetic, resourceful, and ambitious, let him beware of the government service. He possesses qualities which in commercial life lead to success, but in the government service, surprising as it may seem, generally invite failure. In the commercial world, the standard by which everything and everybody is measured, either directly or indirectly, is money. An employee is useful or useless, according as he aids, no matter how, in accumulating profit. Money is seldom wasted in salaries for which a clear return in money-earning is not evident. The superior officer is an owner or stockholder, or is employed to manage the concern, because he is a business-getter. His authority is seldom questioned; if it is, the doubter is discharged. Nobody talks of resignations or threatens ‘ influence.’

The federal government is the greatest of all corporations, but it exists without the standard of money value by which all other corporations are measured. For the money-value standard no satisfactory substitute has been found. On the surface there appears a rigid discipline, almost approximating that of the military arm, but below the surface there is a lack of sincere obedience. The subordinates know that the superior has no property or proprietary right to the position he temporarily occupies. They know that their own positions are probably permanent, but that the superior’s position, if desirable, is temporary; hence that he is merely an accident, — merely important for the moment, — and that his departure is likely to be expedited at an early date, no matter how efficient an officer he proves himself to be. The official who rides to his office in a government carriage may go home, perforce, on a trolley. It has often occurred.

The average period of incumbency of a dozen important department and bureau positions 1 in the last decade was two years and eight months. In other words, forty-five individuals (including those now in office) have occupied twelve positions in ten years. In spite of the growth of the civil service reform sentiment, and the continuance in power of one political party, there is a vague but general notion that ‘ feeding at the government crib ’ should not be too prolonged. Hence it happens that any official, however efficient and expert he may be, if his position is important enough to be coveted, may expect at some time to be transformed overnight in newspaper parlance from ‘ a faithful public servant ’ to ‘ a mere officeholder,’ and to find himself persona non grata with his superiors. For every man hastening joyously to Washington to be sworn in, there is another packing his trunk to depart; and however skillfully he conceals his feelings, he generally retires with sorrow. In short, official position is like a chair in a barber’s shop, — many men take turns sitting in it for a longer or shorter time.

On the other hand, in the lower or clerical grades, tenure of office is indefinite. Good behavior and moderate ability to perform routine work are nowadays likely to be rewarded by lifelong employment. Between the chiefs, who are temporary, and the clerks, who are permanent, are the minor officials, who maintain a decidedly anxious permanency.

The average of ability among the female clerks is perhaps higher than among the male clerks, because the government offers, as suggested above, the best openings for women seeking employment, while on the other hand, the brighter and more progressive men are constantly leaving the service. It is possible, however, for male clerks, even though beginning at the bottom, to rise to high positions. But the process of promotion, always slow in the government service, means increasing uncertainty of tenure, and thus may prove the undoing of an able man who has passed beyond the age to begin life anew. All of which seems so paradoxical that it is worth while to trace briefly the actual experience of scores of competent men.

Let us suppose a keen, well-educated, ambitious young man to have passed the portals of the civil service. He is dependent for support on his own exertions, and is therefore attracted by the immediately living salary offered, and the opportunity for life in Washington; he accepts employment under the general government in one of the executive departments. By so doing, he cuts loose from his home community, and leaves the locality in which opportunities exist and where success is bounded only by ability. Hence he misses such opportunities as constantly arise in American towns and cities for intelligent and ambitious young men, and seeks a locality in which no opportunities exist outside of those provided by appropriation bills. Washington, it must be remembered, is maintained solely for the transaction of federal business and as a place of residence for a wealthy leisure class.

Our young man, strive as he will, may become a typical government clerk. If so, he settles into a dull routine, loses both energy and ambition, generally marries, and is burdened all his life with debts incurred for illness or necessary expenses exceeding the moderate salary, even though it is increased by slow promotion through classes 1, 2, 3, and the longed-for and final class 4 (eighteen hundred dollars). On the other hand, he may develop well, prove very valuable to his superiors, and so attract favorable official attention. By sheer merit, or by political favor, or by both, after a dozen or twenty years of official life, at middle age, or later, he may reach a grade just below an official position of some responsibility and importance. He has now the favor of the head of the department, whose tenure, it must be remembered, is generally but four years at most. The position above becomes vacant; to this a friendly cabinet officer offers to promote our clerk, now a minor official. The position we assume to be one of real responsibility, to which is attached a salary of some three to five thousand dollars a year. It is here that the crisis in the life of this government employee occurs.

To continue as clerk or minor official generally means permanent employment until driven out by old age. It also means clipping the wings of ambition and independence. On the other hand, if he accepts promotion to real responsibility, it means momentary dignity and increased usefulness, but it means also that the ground beneath him is no longer solid, that a position is being occupied which is sufficiently important and remunerative to interest politicians and others. A cabinet change, certainly a change of Presidents, suddenly rearranges the official map. The alternative is then placed before the efficient and ambitious official, it matters not whether courteously or bluntly, either to accept reduction in grade or to resign. The former means humiliation, the utter destruction of all influence and future usefulness, relegation to the junk-heap with those who cling to such positions as are contemptuously granted to avoid causing starvation. Resignation, however, means the sidewalk, until a position in private life can be found. But a suitable place is not easy to secure. The ties which bound to the old home were for the most part long since broken, and Washington is as bare of aid to a man looking for a position as the moon is bare of vegetation. Moreover, if some reputation has been acquired, however unsubstantial, self-respect has become entangled with a sense of dignity and does not permit accepting any position which offers, although the question of bare existence may be at stake.

‘ I have been offered the headship of my bureau three times,’ said a minor government official not long since. ‘ I never have dared to accept it. Of course it meant promotion, and greatly increased usefulness and pay, and I longed to accept; but I knew it also meant a short period of official life at the top, and then out — out into the street. Official position is a luxury. The man who accepts should have private resources to provide for the day when the newspapers publish a rumor that So-and-so “ has decided to resign.” As for me,’he added, ' I am a poor man. I can take no chances.’

The refusal of responsibility and advancement, for the reasons described, must always result in distinct loss of self-respect and ambition. Moreover, even as an official of minor grade, maintenance of one’s foothold is not always easy or agreeable. A reputation for ability and knowledge of official business, earned as a trusted assistant to one chief, vanishes with the latter’s departure; the next day in his place sits a stranger who must be persuaded and won. In other words, the battle for reputation, which most men fight but once in a lifetime, must be fought anew in the government service with every change of high officials. The first experience of this sort is little noticed, for ambition and interest are high; the second time, it becomes vaguely annoying; but to begin anew the process of demonstrating one’s experience and value a third time, and again, and still again, each time to an absolute stranger, to some political accident, who probably does not possess any official experience, any special qualification for his position, or even a tithe of the subordinate official’s knowledge, grows actually unendurable. Sense of justice and selfrespect revolt, and if the employee remains in the service, indifference and carelessness inevitably result.

In commercial life, responsibility is definitely fixed, and as a man is justly blamed for poor work, he is also praised for real efficiency. In the government service, inefficiency is not sufficiently condemned, and ability and fine service, even though of unusual quality, receive in the long run little consideration. Extravagance or economy also makes little difference, for if a balance of an appropriation is returned to the Treasury unexpended, no one knows it and no one cares. It is therefore much easier to spend it, and spent it usually is.

In commercial life, moreover, when one general manager succeeds another, the change is generally the result of an attempt to secure a better man; hence it is at least certain that the new officer is an expert in the business, and can be depended upon to appreciate technical knowledge in his subordinates. In the government, a newly appointed official usually enters upon his duties in utter ignorance, not only of the business and problems of his office, but even of official procedure. Yet the power of a greenhorn official is as absolute as if he possessed the ripest knowledge. This fact was recently illustrated by an editorial comment of a prominent western newspaper upon a retiring official: ‘ It remains to be seen whether any other officials akin to this one in point of view, if not in crassness of utterance, are still in the public service.’ Yet for six months this man had been in absolute authority over ten thousand anxious employees, and had demoralized three bureaus before his departure.

Appointments to high positions made primarily from political considerations often bring strange individuals into authority, as Washington tradesmen can sorrowfully testify. It is not remarkable, therefore, that the minor official and government clerk soon become victims of routine, but rather that so much faithful service is constantly rendered. No business machine has such an array of faithful routine servants as the federal government. Practically without hope of reward, they labor on with wonderful fidelity.

The conditions thus described turn many natures awry, and in such cases develop characteristics seldom found except in the federal service. It is among the minor officials, who are necessarily thrown into closest association with the frequently changing heads of departments and bureaus, that such temperaments are most noticeable. To such men, preservation of position becomes the principal objective, since they are without hope in long-forgotten home communities. They are, perforce, believers in the idea, Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi. They are followers of the official actually in authority, they favor those whom he favors, they agree with his opinions, but are wary of speech themselves, lest definite assertions attract unfavorable attention or criticism. They are men, in short, who travel the tight-rope of official life by dexterous balancing. Above them, chiefs come and go, good ones mildly regretted, crude or bumptious ones endured; it matters not, so long as they themselves remain. Such persons are in most instances but the burned-out shells of men who might have amounted to something better had they stayed at home.

This is not an attractive picture; but, on the other-hand, it must be remembered that in the government service the superior officer holds the reputation of his subordinates in the hollow of his hand. By a sneer, or insinuation, or baseless charge, if he is prejudiced or unscrupulous, he can destroy the character of a good man or woman, and the victim has no redress.

Although it is not within the purpose of this paper to refer to the government work, as distinguished from the worker, it may be said in passing that no executive within recollection exerted such direct influence on the federal employees themselves as did President Roosevelt. His personal influence within the federal service was as profound as it was upon the nation. He was not content to listen to the perfunctory reports of cabinet officers, but claimed and exercised the privilege of dealing directly with any bureau chief or subordinate who could aid the executive by expert knowledge of complicated problems.

The effect of this policy, while not always pleasing to cabinet officers, was inspiring in the extreme to subordinate officials; it spurred them to unprecedented zeal, which in turn was diffused by them among their subordinates. A new and surprising energy, a genuine awakening of enthusiasm for tasks made dull by long routine, took possession of the federal service. The influence, however, of personality is short-lived.

All through the executive departments exists the feeling, constantly finding utterance in serious comment, that a man wastes his life in the golden age of the republic by lingering in the employ of the federal government. There are certainly few government clerks and minor officials who do not feel as if they were in a net, and from age, habit, or temperament, find themselves with each passing year growing less and less able to shake loose.

As every rule, however, has exceptions, so there are marked exceptions to the conditions here described; but no one who is familiar with the government service will claim that they are very numerous. Such as there are occur generally among employees of the Treasury and the Patent Office, which to some extent offer technical training in banking and in patent law. In such cases, and here and there elsewhere in the government service, the opportunity for acquiring expert knowledge and making acquaintances is turned to their own advantage by some of the abler and more energetic employees.

But if conditions are thus unfavorable, what is the lure of the federal service, that thousands of alert and intelligent men and women should clamor for government employment?

It is easily summed up: expectation of easy and pleasant work, attractive pay at the outset, ignorance of the drawbacks, and desire to reside in Washington. It is surprising how effective is the last-mentioned reason. It leads the type-machine operator holding a good position in Omaha to exchange it for a few months’ work in the Government Printing Office, or the school-teacher in Massachusetts to abandon her classes in order to stuff seeds into bags in the Department of Agriculture.

There is a subtle fascination about Washington: its buildings, parks, cosmopolitan population drawn from all the states, official atmosphere, lack of business, and vague languor resulting from its position at the gateway of the South. These things attract and steadily increase their hold upon the government employee.

‘ It is curious,’ wrote a former government official now engaged in very successful mining operations on the Pacific Coast, ' what a hold Washington and its associations have upon a man! If I were at at all independent, I think I should go back there just as rapidly and directly as the trains would carry me. This is a form of grippe which the man who leaves the government service contends with for a long time.

' Washington is like automobiles, golf, and other forms of luxury that consume both money and time, and are only fit indulgences for the wealthy. It was summed up by a government employee who congratulated me on my departure and said he himself often longed to go, but that when he had opportunity he lacked the courage, and when he had the courage he lacked the opportunity.’

Nothing has better expressed the mingled desire and timidity of the federal employee, for whom the government is his only hope; yet by the act of serving it, he has removed himself from all the main traveled routes of commercial opportunity.

Good old James Thomson, he of The Seasons, described the situation, albeit in the stately English of the eighteenth century:—

O grievous folly! to heap up estate,
Losing the days you see beneath the sun;
When, sudden, comes blind unrelenting Fate
And gives the untasted portion you have won
To those who mock you. . .

The man who amounts to anything and settles down as an employee of the federal government, whether of high degree or low, is an air-plant. He has no roots in solid earth, and any strong political breeze may blow him away. If you would have roots, settle in the home community and grow up in normal fashion; then, with a competence and with a town, city, or state back of you, seek Washington and find in the government service an agreeable incident, but only an incident, in your career.

  1. Assistant Secretaries of the Treasury and of Commerce and Labor; first Assistant Postmaster General; Bureau Chiefs: Commissioner of Patents, Comptroller of the Currency, Director of the Census, Commissioner of Pensions, Commissioner of Labor, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Commissioner of Immigration.