The use of competitive examinations to select civil officials was begun in China during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), and expanded to include all important positions during the Sung dynasty (960–1279; see Chinese examination system). In the West, however, selection of civil administrators and staff on the basis of merit examinations is a late development. Despite important contributions to administrative structure and procedure, the Roman Empire seems to have recruited and promoted officials largely on the basis of custom and the judgement of superiors.
The establishment of the modern civil service is closely associated with the decline of feudalism and the growth of national autocratic states. In Prussia, as early as the mid-17th cent., Frederick William, elector of Brandenburg, created an efficient civil administration staffed by civil servants chosen on a competitive basis. In France similar reforms preceded the Revolution, and they were the basis for the Napoleonic reforms that transformed the royal service into the civil service. Development of a professional civil service came several decades later in Great Britain and the United States.
Owing doubtless in part to the spoils system so strongly established in the Jacksonian era, the United States lagged far behind other nations in standards of civil service competence and probity. Agitation for reform began shortly after the Civil War. In 1871, Congress authorized the President to prescribe regulations for admission to public service and to appoint the Civil Service Commission, which lasted only a few years. The scandals of President Grant's administration lent weight to the arguments of reformers George W. Curtis, Dorman B. Eaton, and Carl Schurz. President Hayes favored reform and began to use competitive examinations as a basis for appointment to office.
The assassination of President Garfield in 1881 by a disappointed office seeker precipitated the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, reestablishing the Civil Service Commission after a nine-year lapse. The commission draws up the rules governing examinations for those positions that Congress places in the classified civil service. All Presidents since Cleveland have expanded the classified list, and the great majority of federal employees during peacetime are now classified. In 1939 the merit system was extended to sections of state administration receiving federal grants. The Hatch Act of 1940 forbade campaign contributions by officeholders, with the intention of divorcing the civil service from politics. A 1993 revision of the act allows most civil servants to engage in political activity on their own time.
Appointive power is shared by the President, who appoints the heads of all government departments and may remove his appointees at will; by Congress, which controls its own employees; and by the Civil Service Commission and departmental-appointing officers, in whose charge are vacancies in the classified service. Important changes were made in the structure of the U.S. civil service as a result of the reports issued (1949, 1955) by the two commissions known as the Hoover Commission. The organization of the government bureaucracy was streamlined by the creation of the General Services Administration, combining the operations and activities of some 60 government agencies.
Of the world's civil services, the most outstanding on several counts is still the British, extremely powerful because of its permanency, its extensive grants of power from Parliament, and its reputation for absolute honesty, although it is criticized for a lack of flexibility and for class exclusiveness in its upper ranges. A Civil Service Commission and the beginnings of a system of competitive examinations were established in Great Britain in 1855, and the influential Whitley Councils, representing both government employees and administrators in questions dealing with service conditions, were set up after World War II. British civil servants are strictly excluded from politics. In Communist nations, on the other hand, the official party and the civil service have tended to interpenetrate. The secretariat of the League of Nations and of the United Nations are possible precursors of an international civil service.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.