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Uncivil Service

July 1, 2009

Somewhere along the way civil service hiring and promotion processes became little more than another means of making bad employment decisions under the cloak of plausible deniability.  Civil service originally sought to end hiring decisions based primarily on politics or nepotism.  Today, it has become little more than a way to protect the status quo and prevent lawsuits rather than a means of hiring the best qualified candidates for public service jobs.

What does discrimination based on ‘job requirements reflecting business necessity’ mean in the public sector?  To what extent does public employment represent a public good in and of itself?  Can a community express its preferences for promoting the overall welfare of the community, including representation of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and other disadvantaged classes in public employment, as a business necessity?

Social justice advocates have yet to uncover a truly color-blind or gender-neutral system for expressing hiring and promotional preferences, especially for demanding and complex jobs like fighting fires, which depend as much upon tacit knowledge as physical ability.  Those who see nothing wrong with this situation often argue against compelling evidence that written aptitude tests ensure the best qualified are selected for leadership positions.

Defenders of the current system of written exams used in many civil service systems argued in a case recently decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (Ricci v. DeStefano, No. 07-1428) that evidence of disparate impact upon one class did not justify disparate treatment of another.  A narrow majority of justices agreed.

The dissenting opinions noted, however, the importance of context.  Communities have a compelling interest in seeing that public servants work for them and not for themselves.  Hiring and promotion processes that disenfranchise communities, especially minority communities, by marginalizing their participation in public employment run the risk of isolating public servants from the public service ethos or leaving it resembling little more than hollow paternalism.

It would be nice to imagine that in the century since the civil service system came into being that we would have seen the end of racial politics, nepotism, and privilege serving its own self-interested ends through the spoils system.  But sadly, we have simply displaced such behavior from one branch of the government and vested it in another.  Unfortunately, the office holders with the most influence over this question about our public life today enjoy life tenure.

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