Water Flowing Uphill: National Implications of State Civil Service Movements

Source: Donald F. Kettl, Public Administration Review, Vol. 75 Issue 2, March/April 2015
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….That federal proposal builds on the at-will movement flowing uphill from the states. State-inspired movements are nothing new. After all, much of the progressive government reform movement of the late 1800s, from changes reining in corruption to strategies increasing the efficiency of government operations, bubbled up from state and local governments to Washington. In the 2000s, the local Tea Party movement generated enormous government-cutting energy—as well as candidates carrying its ideas to Washington. To a degree many Washington insiders do not recognize, the “flowing uphill” movement is generating a strong push toward ideas like transforming the SES into an at-will employment system.

There is little doubt that the government’s personnel systems have become ossified, trapped in mid-twentieth thinking at a time when government needs twenty-first century entrepreneurial energy. Government performance surely suffers if government employment becomes a barrier to flexibility, innovation, and energy, and there is an overwhelming consensus that the civil service system needs fundamental reform (Partnership for Public Service 2014). But at-will employment in the government reminds us of Wallace Sayre’s famous—and perceptive—observation that “business and public administration are alike only in all unimportant respects”. It raises enormous questions about how to balance the often-competing goals of accountability, flexibility, innovation, and expertise that lie at the core of the public service. The at-will movement deserves—indeed, requires—careful examination before its untested assumptions subtly reshape governmental practice…..