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Protection Versus Flexibility: The Civil Service Reform Act, Competing Administrative Doctrines, and the Roots of Contemporary Public Management Debate

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2009

Donald P. Moynihan
The Bush School of Government and Public Service Texas A&M University
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The year 2003 marks the twentieth-fifth anniversary of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978, a late chapter in the development of the American administrative state and the most significant reform of the civil service system since its creation through the Pendleton Act of 1883. The Act made a number of enduring contributions to the personnel system of the federal government. Given the recursive nature of public management debate, there is considerable policy importance in trying to understand the original basis of decisions on legislation that have shaped the federal government over the last twenty-five years, and the CSRA has recently been the subject of renewed interest. More important, the CSRA was a rare and relatively important shift in the beliefs and attitudes—the administrative doctrine—that shape the evolution of the administrative state. Significantly, the debate during the CSRA saw the emergence of deep divisions within administrative doctrine, divisions that continue to shape public management policymaking.

Copyright © The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. 2004



1. Pfiffner, James P. and Brook, Douglas A., eds., The Future of Merit: Twenty Years After the Civil Service Reform Act (Washington, D.C., 2000)Google Scholar. The authors in Pfiffner and Brook are primarily interested in reassessing the CSRA in terms of its impact from a variety of contemporary perspectives, such as performance and accountability and globalization and the changing state. By contrast, this article undertakes original research to reassess the CSRA from the perspective of its framers, before linking to the contemporary public management debate.

2. For a discussion of administrative doctrines, see Hood, Christopher and Jackson, Michael, Administrative Ar gument (Hanover, N.H., 1991)Google Scholar, and Hood, Christopher and Jackson, Michael, “Key for Locks in Administrative Argument,” Administration and Society 25 (1994): 467488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3. National Performance Review, From Red Tapes to Results: Creating a Government that W orks Better and Costs Less (Washington, D.C., 1993).Google Scholar

4. U.S. Office of Management and Budget, The President's Management Agenda (Washington, D.C., 2001).Google Scholar

5. An example of the contemporary debate analyzing these tensions and featuring high-level practitioners, academics, and management experts can be found in Ingraham, Patricia W., Selden, Sally C., and Moynihan, Donald P., “People and Performance: Challenges for the Future Public Service—the Report from the Wye River Conference,” Public Administration Review 60 (0102 1993): 5460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6. Thompson, James R., “The Clinton Reforms and the Administrative Ascendancy of Congress,” American Review of Public Administration 31 (09 2001): 249272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7. On unanticipated consequences, see Nelson, Michael, “A Short Ironic History of American National Bureaucracy,” Journal of Politics 44 (1982): 747778CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the fight for political control, see Shefter, Martin, “Party, Bureaucracy, and Political Change in the United States,” in Maisel, Louis and Cooper, Joseph, eds., Political Parties: Development and Decay (Beverly Hills, 1978)Google Scholar. Stephen Skrowronek's analysis of the origins of the administrative state covers these issues and documents the closely-bound nature of administrative reform and politics; Skrowronek, , Building a New American State (New York, 1982).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8. Peters, B. Guy, Institutional Theory in Political Science: The New Institutionalism (London, 2000).Google Scholar

9. Earlier exemplary works on the CSRA can be found in Ingraham, Patricia W., and Ban, Carolyn, eds., Legislating Bureaucratic Change: The Civil Ser vice Refor m Act of 1978 (Albany, N.Y., 1984)Google Scholar, and Ingraham, Patricia W. and Rosenbloom, David H., eds., The Promise and Paradox of Civil Service Reform (Pittsburgh, 1992)Google Scholar. This article adds to the theoretical perspectives presented in these volumes by tracing the protection-flexibility dichotomy that dominates current public management debate to its first full expression in the CSRA.

10. Exemplary works include Cohen, Richard E., Washington at Work: Back Rooms and Clean Air (Boston, 1995)Google Scholar; Johnson, Haynes and Broder, David, The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point (Boston, 1996)Google Scholar; Maraniss, David and Weisskopf, Michael, Tell Newt to Shut Up! (New York, 1996)Google Scholar; Marmor, Ted, The Politics of Medicare, 2d ed. (New York, 2000)Google ScholarPubMed; Redman, Eric (1973), The Dance of Legislation (New York, 1973)Google Scholar. The works cited also highlight the high frequency of journalists in undertaking these analyses.

11. QSR NUDIST allows analysis of data using a hierarchical coding system. The software is flexible enough to allow both inductive and deductive coding and modification of the coding structure to facilitate the dialogue of themes, concepts, and evidence. As codes are established, the definition of what each code means may be attached, as well as memos on the emerging trends that are associated with a particular code. The software is therefore ideal for the type of research undertaken here. It allows for the creation of broad codes that facilitate descriptive information of the legislative process, deductive codes based on the legislative outcomes, and inductively created codes based on the case evidence. For more information, see Gahan, Celia and Hannibal, Mike, Doing Qualitative Research Using QSR Nudist (London, 1998).Google Scholar

12. Skrowronek, Building a New American State.

13. For a Progressive perspective that would strongly influence public administration scholarship, see Wilson, Woodrow, “The Study of Administration,” Political Science Quarterly 2 (1887): 207222CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Dwight Waldo's history of the administrative state notes that the Progressives pursued not only competent management but also moral government; Waldo, , The Administrative State: A Study in the Political Theor y of American Public Administration (New York, 1948).Google Scholar

14. By the early twentieth century a number of public management principles had developed to guide the practitioner. Herbert Simon recast such principles as a series of mutually contradictory proverbs whose usefulness was contingent on the situation; Simon, , “The Proverbs of Administration,” Public Administration Review 6 (Winter 1946): 53–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar. However, Simon's attack on the administrative orthodoxy did not extend directly to the protection doctrine that underpinned the civil service. Although the empirically-based social science approach advocated by Simon gained strength, public management policymaking retains a preference for persuasively argued success stories that lend themselves to management principles. A good example is the success of the Osborne, David E. and Gaebler, Ted book, Reinventing Government: How the Ent repreneurial Government Is Transforming the Public Sector (New York, 1992)Google Scholar. The book became a best-seller, strongly influencing government reform at state, local, and particularly the federal level through the National Performance Review.

15. Ingraham, Patricia W., The Foundation of Merit (Baltimore, 1995), especially chapter 3.Google Scholar

16. Ostrom, Vincent, The Intellectual Crisis in Public Administration, 2d ed. (Tuscaloosa, 1989), 78Google Scholar. Ostrom's review of public-administration intellectual history presents a malaise due to a continued failure to move away from traditional ways of thinking about administration. His solution was to embrace public-choice economics. Ostrom emphasizes the decentralization aspects of public choice. Other public-choice economists would attack the internal workings of the public sector, including civil service rules, as inefficient and nondemocratic. While these arguments were made around the time of the CSRA, the influence of public-choice ideas does not appear in any of the interviews of key actors or in documentation of the PMP. Instead, public-choice economics proved to have a greater influence on civil service reform overseas, in countries such as the U.K., New Zealand, and Australia. On the role of public choice and adoption of reform, see Boston, Jonathan, “The Theoretical Underpinnings of Public Sector Restructuring in New Zealand,” in Boston, Jonathan, Martin, John, Pallot, June, and Walsh, Pat, eds., Reshaping the State (Auckland, 1991)Google Scholar. In reviewing the leading contemporary public management doctrine, known as the New Public Management, Peter Aucoin argues that it is a mixture of public-choice arguments and managerial arguments derived from private-sector organizations; Aucoin, Peter, “Administrative Reform in Public Management: Paradigms, Principles, Paradoxes, and Pendulums,” Governance 3 (1990): 115137CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This article demonstrates the influence of managerial arguments in 1978 and the relative absence of public-choice arguments. The success of Osborne and Gaebler's Reinventing Gover nment and the use of private organizations as a model by both the Clinton and the George W. Bush administrations suggests the continued dominance of managerial arguments in U.S. contemporary public management debate.

17. Newland, Chester, “The Politics of Transition,” in Pfiffner, James P. and Brook, Douglas A. eds., The Future of Merit (Washington, D.C., 2000)Google Scholar. Nathan, Richard, a political appointee under Nixon, recounts the experience in The Plot That Failed: Nixon and the Administrative Pr esidency (New York, 1975).Google Scholar

18. Common Cause and other public-interest groups had been actively involved in researching and exposing what they saw as the politicization of the merit system under Nixon. See Newland, “The Politics of Transition,” 206–8.

19. The proposals that the president sent to Congress in March 1978 reflected an even stronger flexibility perspective than the final legislative outcomes described in Table 1, in large part because the original proposal did not include a labor-relations title sought by public employee unions. However, it became clear that the unions would succeed in having a title added, and the administration sent labor-relations language to Congress in May, which, after some significant revision in the House, would become Title VII.

20. Ingraham, Patricia W. and Moynihan, Donald P., “Evolving Dimensions of Performance from the CSRA to the Present,” in Pfiffner, James P. and Brook, Douglas A., eds., The Future of Merit (Washington, D.C., 2000).Google Scholar

21. Taylor, Frederick W. argued for a “scientific management” based on the most efficient use of resources for a given task in The Principles of Scientific Management (New York, 1919)Google Scholar. For discussion of management principles, see Gulick, Luther and Urwick, Lyndall, eds., Papers on the Science of Administration (New York, 1937)Google Scholar. A related proposal for reorganizing the public sector can be found in U.S. President's Committee on Administrative Management, Repor t with Special Studies (Washington, D.C., 1937).Google Scholar

22. Robertson, David Brian, “Introduction: Loss of Confidence and Policy Change in the 1970s,” Journal of Policy History 10 (1998): 118CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The CSRA case reflects the importance of public-interest groups in the prominence of Common Cause in policy decisions.

23. Milkis, Sidney, “Remaking Government Institutions in the 1970s: Participatory Democracy and the Triumph of Administrative Politics,” Journal of Policy History 10 (1998): 5174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24. While a negative attitude toward bureaucracy characterized both Carter's presidential campaign and the public campaign for the CSRA, Carter himself did not have a strongly negative view of public employees. Howard Messner of the OMB recalls this in a meeting with the president: “The President expressed his awareness of growing public attitudes but stressed that he did not want to develop a posture that pitted him against ‘his fellow workers.’ To do this, he stated, would undermine his efforts to achieve substantial programmatic changes. In other words, if the employees felt that they didn't like him, and he was alienated from them, it wouldn't help him change the government” (#23, 21).

25. Hood and Jackson, Administrative Ar gument. Such a style of doctrinal-based argumentation continues to recur in public management debate, despite an increased focus on social scientific research in public administration.

26. Frederick Thayer makes a similar point, suggesting that while the pay-for-performance aspect of the CSRA was linked to expectancy theory, the evidence supporting such theory was weak, and the CSRA was relying on a “dubious mythology” that did not match public-sector needs; Thayer, , “The President's Management ‘Reform’: Theory X Triumphant,” Public Administration Review 48 (0708 1978): 311Google Scholar. Later empirical research on pay-for-performance systems in the public sector found them to be largely unsuccessful: Kellough, J. Edward and Lu, Haoran, “The Paradox of Merit Pay in the Public Sector: Persistence of a Problematic Procedure,” Review of Public Personnel Administration 13, no. 2 (Spring 1993): 4564CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ingraham, Patricia W., “Of Pigs in Pokes and Policy Diffusion: Another Look at Pay-for-Performance,” Public Administration Review 53 (0608 1993): 348356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27. The lack of strong social science research, despite efforts to create the appearance of scientific knowledge, may be closer to the rule rather than exception in public management policymaking. Roberts notes a similar pattern with the 1937 Brownlow Committee, tasked with recommending administrative reforms. Although social science was not well developed in universities at this point, especially in public administration, “the committee not only aspired to conduct scientific research but they also went out of their way to make a point of showing that they had conducted scientific research.” Roberts, Alasdair, “Why the Brownlow Committee Failed: Neutrality and Partisanship in the Early Years of Public Administration,” Administration and Society 28 (1996): 31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28. Campbell made the comment during remarks at the Symposium on Civil Service Reform, State University of New York at Binghamton, October 1981, quoted in Ingraham, The Foundation of Merit, 82.

29. From an interest-group perspective, Mancur Olson examines the difficulties larger groups encounter in seeking public goods, and the relative success of smaller groups in organizing; Olson, , The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge, 1971)Google Scholar. From a legislative viewpoint, R. Douglas Arnold offers a formal model that distinguishes the costs and benefits of general public versus specific group perspectives on policies and how they affect congressional preferences; Arnold, , The Logic of Congressional Action (New Haven, 1990).Google Scholar

30. Both senators had developed a series of amendments intended to avert what they saw as politicization of the career civil service. Several negotiations with the administration failed to produce a compromise until the senators and Carter met directly. Once the broad outlines of a consensus were reached, Carter ordered staff from both sides to remain in the White House until specific compromise legislative language was crafted. The amendments served to limit the power of the OPM, classify some positions as career-reserved, and strengthen the oversight powers of the MSPB.

31. This observation fits with well-established assumptions about member preferences to establish an acceptable voting record to further the prospect of reelection, especially in issues where certain constituencies, such as the American Legion, follow roll-call activity closely. Arnold, R. Douglas, Congress and the Bur eaucracy: A Theory of Influence (New Haven, 1979), 2628.Google Scholar

32. The importance of values and symbols in politics has been well recounted by Edelman, Murray, The Symbolic Uses of Politics (Chicago, 1964).Google Scholar

33. Skrowronek, Building a New American State, 68.

34. Campbell notes that “we made some of the language somewhat more fuzzy than I had hoped it would be, and we're now paying the price for that as these matters are negotiated out and the Federal Labor Relations Authority is going to have to make a lot of decisions on matters that aren't clear” (#2–1, 24).

35. Ink, Dwight, “What Was Behind the 1978 Civil Service Reform?” in Pfiffner, James P. and Brook, Douglas A., eds., The Future of Merit (Washington, D.C., 2000), 54.Google Scholar

36. Shefter, “Party, Bureaucracy, and Political Change in the United States.”

37. Huddleston, Mark W. and Boyer, William W., The Higher Civil Service in the United States: Quest for Reform (Pittsburgh, 1996).Google Scholar

38. U.S. Office of Personnel Management, The Fact Book, Federal Civilian Workforce Statistics, 1998 Edition (Washington, D.C., 1998), 68.Google Scholar

39. For a summary of the New Public Management, see Barzelay, Michael, Explaining the New Public Management: Improving Research and Policy Dialogue (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2001)Google Scholar. See especially chapter 4 for an analysis of contemporary administrative doctrine and desirable standards for administrative argument.

40. Ink, “What Was Behind the 1978 Civil Service Reform?” 44.

41. Thompson, James R., “Devising Administrative Reform That Works: The Example of the Reinvention Lab Program,” Public Administration Review 59 (0608 1999): 283293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

42. Ingraham and Ban, Legislating Bur eaucratic Reform, Introduction.

43. The propensity of the public employment system to reflect a mixture of contradictory goals is not a new idea, and in fact it might be considered more the norm than the exception. Herbert Kaufman highlighted this tendency, noting how cycles of reforms pursue the seemingly mutually exclusive goals of representativeness, neutral competence, and leadership; Kaufman, , “Emerging Conflicts in the Doctrines of Public Administration,” American Political Science Review 50 (December 1956): 10571073.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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