People are taught that the Civil Service is a corps of competent public servants, screened by examinations and insulated from political interference to act in the best interest of the people. There never was too much truth in that children’s story, but over the past few decades, that public-spirited image has become dangerously misleading.
The Chinese Imperial examination system screened for literacy, but not directly for competence in a particular position. The best person for a job may not be the one who tests highest for general measures of intelligence or subject knowledge; many job skills aren’t easy to test for, and so it would be a mistake to rely entirely on written exams to fill positions. And since there are thousands of different jobs requiring different skill sets, it would be impractical to come up with exams tailored to every job.
The wave of affirmative action programs starting in the 1970s weakened civil service exam requirements. Courts found many exams discriminated against minorities, especially when it was clear the exams covered material largely unrelated to job skills. Some affirmative action programs race-normed the passing grades, which allowed more minorities to qualify with scores that would otherwise have failed. Many positions were entirely removed from examination requirements. Where the qualifying standard had been “top 3” or “best,” it became “good enough” or “adequate.”
The needs of a bureaucracy may not always favor hiring the most intelligent or skilled candidate. As in private industry, some managers would prefer to hire people who are bright enough and skilled enough, but not too much more than that, lest they be unhappy in the job or liable to be hired away by others — the brilliant scientist who wants to work as a police officer while writing papers on theoretical physics in her spare time is out of luck. In Connecticut, a Federal judge ruled the state was not discriminating unlawfully when it denied an applicant the opportunity to interview for the police force because his intelligence test score was too high. Not rocking the boat is valued over ability in many hierarchies.
But these are just entry-level positions. What happens when promotion from within is favored, while entry-level employees are screened to ensure the very bright or overqualified are kept out? Entry-level positions in organizations are often open to all in theory, while in practice networks and connections of family, ethnicity, neighborhood, and religion can assist in placing people at the bottom rungs. If higher-level positions are filled from within this can result in entire organizations dominated by a single affiliate group, for example the Irish police forces of early 19th century cities and on a smaller scale, the Filipino-dominated air passenger screening agents at San Francisco International Airport in 2002 who were in danger of losing their jobs when the TSA was formed and citizenship was to have been required.
Veterans were recently outraged to discover that the preference for veterans in VA hiring supposedly enshrined in the Veteran’s Preference Act of 1944 is largely ignored, with all but the most menial jobs at the VA filled by nonveteran union members. Very few veterans are actually employed by the VA, because the true rulers of the agency are unions and upper-level bureaucrats who aren’t that interested in what Congress or veterans want or require — and why should they be, when Congress does nothing to change the underlying civil service and union control over VA staffing?
Current Federal civil service rules require only the minimum qualifications suggesting an applicant will be capable of competence in a particular job, which is a long way from aiming for the best candidate. Merit has been replaced by “good enough,” with even that low bar lowered further to allow affirmative action targets to be met. Since almost no one is fired for incompetence, affirmative action candidates are almost guaranteed to be hired and promoted to above their level of actual competence. Which means a large percentage of Federal civil service employees are now unable to efficiently and competently perform their duties; all they need to do to succeed is show up, write some reports, and collect their paychecks. And there are many cases where even failing at those minimal efforts did not result in termination, as in this egregious EPA case:
A former high-level official at the Environmental Protection Agency admitted Friday that he stole nearly $900,000 from the government by pretending to work for the CIA in a plea agreement that raised questions about how top agency managers failed to detect the scheme since it began in 1994. John C. Beale duped a series of supervisors, including top officials of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, disappearing from the office and explaining his absences by telling his bosses that he was doing top-secret work for the CIA and its “directorate of operations.”
He lied about contracting malaria (he didn’t) while he served in Vietnam (all his military service was in the United States) to obtain a parking space reserved for the disabled that cost the EPA $8,000 over three years. He took personal trips to Los Angeles for which he charged the government more than $57,000, according to new court filings.
In all, Beale was paid for 2.5 years of work he did not perform since early 2000 and received about $500,000 in “retention bonuses” he did not deserve for nearly two decades, according to court papers and interviews.
“To our knowledge, prior to [current EPA Administrator] Gina McCarthy expressing her concerns, no one at EPA ever checked to see if Mr. Beale worked for the CIA,” said Assistant Inspector General Patrick Sullivan, who led the investigation that included interviews of 40 people. Only one, an executive assistant, suspected Beale’s story of working for the clandestine service. Nor did EPA personnel compare Beale’s travel vouchers, which said he was in places such as Boston and Seattle, with hotel receipts for the same dates that showed him in Bakersfield, Calif., where he has family. Even during the probe, which began in March, Beale continued to insist that he could not be interviewed because of his work for the CIA, Sullivan said. Only when investigators offered to question him in a secure room at the agency’s Langley headquarters did he admit he had no connection to the CIA, Sullivan said.
Many local government special services like police and firefighting now have certification requirements, with courses and testing designed to assure that candidates have the abilities to succeed in their jobs. Women and minorities continued to struggle with these, and the pioneers were often harassed and held back by those running the certification courses; many lawsuits later, in some locales even those standards — which allow special coaching and assistance for those having trouble meeting them — have been waived.
But most positions in the bureaucracy involve administering the regulations of the administrative state, essentially office jobs involving reading, writing, and paralegal work. Specialized technical knowledge is required in some parts of some federal agencies, like the EPA, while in others like the Social Security Administration only simple accounting and managerial skills are needed.
College degrees and certifications are no guarantee of skill or common sense in regulation. The EPA, for example, is notoriously unscientific in its estimation of risks, setting low standards in some areas and unreasonably high standards in others, with stacked cost-benefit calculations that ignore outside expertise and economist’s studies to reach politically-desirable goals, like the umpteenth announcement of tightening in pollution standards, or the finding that carbon dioxide qualifies as a pollutant which the EPA claims the legal authority to control.
Wilson’s ideal of a dedicated corps of technically competent staff, in contact with the needs and wishes of the citizenry and able to wisely decide regulatory issues, has been betrayed by the decline of competence as the highest value in these agencies. Staff who refuse to compromise science and economic sense to give their masters what they want are harassed and isolated, and the remainders share a progressive mindset that tends to undervalue the vitality of the business and industry that citizens depend on for their livelihoods. Seeing a host of theoretical dangers, but protected from the consequences of their edicts to those trapped in the wasteland of flyover country, a bureaucrat goes along to get along and finds what justification is needed to provide another press release for the politicians running the agency.
Civil service exams aimed at finding the best candidates were outlawed some time ago when courts determined the exams were excluding minority candidates disproportionately. For example, the PACE exam for mid-level (GS-5 and GS-7) positions was abandoned by court decree in 1981, during the Reagan administration:
On November 19, 1981, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia resolved a class-action suit that was filed in 1979 (http://archive.opm.gov/luevano_archive/luevano-archive.asp). The suit alleged that the Professional and Administrative Career Exam (PACE), which the Government used to fill approximately 110 occupations at the GS-5 and GS-7 grade levels, had an adverse impact on the selection of African Americans and Hispanics.
The resolution of the suit (known as the “Luevano consent decree”) ended the PACE examination and required the use of alternative assessments for those occupations at the GS-5 and GS-7 grade levels that were once subject to the PACE exam.
Today, Federal Civil Service regulations are a complex maze of assessments, requirements, pay grades, and rules governing everything about employment, more convoluted than even the largest corporation’s system. Internal management efforts to recruit the most effective employees are often blocked, and the level of effort required to remove an incompetent employee of any class, but especially of an EEOC-protected class, is enormous. More commonly, deadwood is transferred away or allowed to accumulate in forgotten departments not critical to the agency’s mission. We call upper-level federal bureaucrats “mandarins,” but the original Mandarins of Chinese Imperial service would not recognize some of the uncultured and incompetent people now elevated to high management positions by a system that rewards conformity, mediocrity, and racial and sexual minority status.
Here are the current OPM guidelines on use of testing:
D. Written and performance tests — Occupational series/positions with written and/or performance test requirements are identified in the section entitled test requirements. Written and performance tests are to be used as follows:
Initial appointments — Tests are required for some occupational series, either for all applicants or for those applicants who do not meet specific requirements indicated in the standard. If a test is required, applicants who are subject to that test must pass or have previously passed it to be eligible for initial appointment. This includes competitive appointments, and appointments under most noncompetitive appointing authorities.
Inservice placement —
(1) Tests required by OPM. There are a few occupational series for which a test is required by OPM for inservice placement. For such series, agencies must use and applicants must pass the appropriate OPM test. Occupational series with such requirements are also identified in the Test Requirements section.
(2) Tests required by agencies. For positions for which OPM does not require a test, agencies may develop and use tests without OPM approval, as long as the test is part of a comprehensive set of assessment procedures used in ranking employees. The use and appropriateness of such tests are the responsibility of the agency. Agencies cannot, however, use existing OPM tests for such positions, unless specific approval has been received from OPM.
(3) How inservice applicants can be examined. In occupations other than those where OPM requires a test for inservice placement, if an agency prefers to use alternatives to testing (e.g., evaluation of training and experience, interview, performance appraisal) to measure qualifications, it can do so, or it may use a test as one of several tools in evaluating applicants. Tests can be used to determine basic eligibility (i.e., on a pass-fail basis) or as the sole basis for ranking inservice placement applicants, only when specific approval has been received from OPM.
(4) Performance tests. As a general guide, performance tests (e.g., typing proficiency tests) can be used to evaluate inservice placement applicants when, within the past 3 years, they have not performed successfully in a position that required proficiency in the skills needed for the position to be filled.
Penetrating the bureaucratese, testing, while it is still used in qualifying some hires, is minimally important in advancement past entry level. Management promotions depend on politicized and subjective evaluations of communications skills and management ability, and office politics are as important as competence. In a private company, upper management will strive for efficiency and try to employ the most productive workers, and if management does a poor job, the company will suffer and eventually fold, releasing the resources it uses to other firms which may use them better. In government, agencies tend toward the eternal, with the occasional scandal resulting in minimal change in management and almost no change in the rest of the staff. Monopoly government agencies cannot die or be superseded by other firms, and when there is a threat from private business, the agency will fight back — as when the Postal Service tried to enforce its monopoly on the mail, set up by the Private Express Statutes in 1792:
Over the last three years the United States Postal Service has collected more than $500,000 in fines from companies that sent “nonurgent” mail by private couriers like Federal Express or DHL… The Postal Service has fined 21 companies for violating the 1872 law that established the Postal Service monopoly on mail delivery. A 1979 amendment to the law broke the monopoly on urgent mail, establishing as the definition of urgent, mail that must arrive by noon the next day or lose its value. The Postal Service has the right to decide what is urgent and what is not.
US states have their own civil service systems modelled on the federal system, but some retain more of the original merit selection and testing features; for example, California has over a hundred different exams for various special skills and technical jobs. But in general, states and cities have similarly politicized employment systems and affirmative action programs, and suffer similarly by having more than a few incompetent employees and the public employee unions that prevent their removal. And since there is limited reward for competence and little downside for incompetence, morale of high-achieving employees suffers and many of the best leave for private industry.
 “METRO NEWS BRIEFS: CONNECTICUT; Judge Rules That Police Can Bar High I.Q. Scores,” New York Times, Sept. 9, 1999
 “Airport job insecurity / When feds take over, many Filipino screeners will be unemployed,” Annie Nakao, San Francisco Chronicle, 3-18-2002
 “VA Manager Says ‘Thank God’ They Don’t Have To Hire Veterans,” Daily Caller, Luke Rosiak, 04/13/2016
 “Ex-EPA official pleads guilty to theft, pretended to work for the CIA.” By Ann E. Marimow and Lenny Bernstein, Washington Post, September 27, 2013 https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/ex-epa-official-expected-to-plead-guilty-of-theft/2013/09/26/2c95166e-2708-11e3-ad0d-b7c8d2a594b9_story.html
 “Woman to become NY firefighter despite failing crucial fitness test.” New York Post. Susan Edelman. May 3, 2015
 “How Carbon Dioxide Became a ‘Pollutant’.”
By Keith Johnson, Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2009
 OPM “FAQ: Assessment Policy”
 OPM: “Classification and Qualifications: general Schedule Qualification Policies.” Viewed 4-15-2016. https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/classification-qualifications/general-schedule-qualification-policies/
 “Private Couriers and Postal Service Slug It Out,”
New York Times, February 14, 1994. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/14/business/private-couriers-and-postal-service-slug-it-out.html
 California Dept. of Human Resources: “Take or Schedule an Exam,” accessed 3-15-2016. https://exams.spb.ca.gov/exams/exam_start_submit.cfm
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations
[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations, available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]
The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.
Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”
Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.
More reading on other topics:
Jane Jacobs’ Monstrous Hybrids: Guardians vs Commerce
The Great Progressive Stagnation vs. Dynamism
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action is Crippling America
Death by HR: The End of Merit in Civil Service
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Public Employee Unions
Death by HR: History and Practice of Affirmative Action and the EEOC
Civil Service: Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Dream
Bootleggers and Baptists
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Justice Dept. Extortion
Corrupt Feedback Loops, Goldman Sachs: More Justice Dept. Extortion
Death by HR: The Birth and Evolution of the HR Department
Death by HR: The Simple Model of Project Labor
Levellers and Redistributionists: The Feudal Underpinnings of Socialism
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
Trump World: Looking Backward
Minimum Wage: The Parable of the Ladder
Culture Wars: Co-Existence Through Limited Government
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
The Morality of Glamour
On Affirmative Action and Social Policy:
Affirmative Action: Chinese, Indian-Origin Citizens in Malaysia Oppressed
Affirmative Action: Caste Reservation in India
Diversity Hires: Pressure on High Tech<a
Title IX Totalitarianism is Gender-Neutral
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism
The greatest hits from SubstrateWars.com (Science Fiction topics):
Fear is the Mindkiller
Mirror Neurons and Irene Gallo
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
The Death of “Wired”: Hugo Awards Edition
Hugos, Sad Puppies 3, and Direct Knowledge
Selective Outrage and Angry Tribes
Men of Honor vs Victim Culture
SFF, Hugos, Curating the Best
“Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?”
Science Fiction Fandom and SJW warfare
More reading on the military:
US Military: From No Standing Armies to Permanent Global Power
US Military: The Desegration Experience
The VA Scandals: Death by Bureaucracy