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Nichols: US should have school to train bureaucrats

POSTED: June 16, 2008 5:00 a.m.

One of the first tasks facing our new president in 2009 will be to nominate persons to serve as cabinet officials and other top bureaucratic posts.

Once when asked by elementary school students how our government actually works, I gave this simplified explanation:

Think of a nation state as a large horse-drawn carriage. Inside are the passengers (all the citizens of our country). On top is a seat where three kinds of drivers sit. They are the legislative, judicial and executive officials who decide the direction that the carriage will go. Those decisions are transmitted down the control reins to the horses that pull the wagon.

Those horses are the civil and military servants who actually carry out the work of the government, as guided by the instructions imbedded in the laws, judicial decisions and executive orders passed down to them.

Two main types of civil servants exist. The first is patronage, when officials are appointed because of some favor done for an official or party. The president appoints members of his Cabinet and many others like our U.S. ambassadors, subject to confirmation by the Senate. Some of the president’s diplomatic nominees are selected from the ranks of the State Department’s Foreign Service, but most are personal political friends of the president. Sometimes the political appointments work well, but other times they do not.

President Kennedy’s wealthy father served as ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1940. Some observers think he did a poor job as our national representative there. On the other hand, Shirley Temple Black served very successfully as U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and later to Czechoslovakia. Her movie star fame combined with her natural charm made her an outstanding diplomat.

The second type of civil servant includes all merit positions, which require passing an examination or possessing special needed skills.

Merit based civil service has a long history. In China, the Qin dynasty in the 2nd century B.C. began China’s merit system.

Under the Chinese Mandarin system, students from all over China, after receiving a rigorous education, took a three-day exam. Only one out of 100 passed, but those who passed became high officials in the Imperial Court. Later promotions were based also on written examinations.

Until the 1880s, the U.S. was under a spoils system, with the president appointing his friends to federal jobs after his election. Then we passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883. Most spoils positions were eliminated.

Now most federal civil service jobs are in the Competitive Service, entered by exam. The other division is called Excepted Service, entered by meeting special requirements for the job. Included are some jobs in diplomacy, FBI, CIA and other security positions.

After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980, the Soviet Embassy in Washington sent young diplomats to visit several American colleges and discuss (or defend) their actions. One of these came to my school in Pennsylvania. He was working on his Ph.D. in Russia and was using his time in the U.S. to study American bureaucracy. He surprised me by saying that both countries had similar problems in selecting and monitoring the members of their civil service.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he proposed two new programs, one to open discussion with a little more freedom, and the other to reform the structure of the government. In the latter program he began to put pressure on the vast Soviet bureaucracy to modernize and become more efficient.

I thought at the time that Gorbachev would have trouble. How could he get the sluggish bureaucracy to reform itself, to put inefficient or corrupt workers out of jobs?

As we all know, both programs failed, and the country fell apart after 1990. As a tourist to Russia several times near the end of the Soviet Union, I saw many examples of wasted resources with red tape and bungling officials unable to make even a slight modification to an existing program.

Although there are many causes for the disintegration of the Soviet Union, its clumsy bureaucratic system was certainly a major contributing factor. I have not visited Russia recently, so I do not have any personal knowledge of its current bureaucracy.

I think France has a good idea. It has a special school to train top officials for their civil service. We have military schools like West Point. Our Foreign Service has extensive training for those selected to join our diplomatic corps. But we have no national academy to train our top civil servants.

I wish we did.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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