This system entails a dyadic relationship between elected politicians and their client, the civil servant. Similar clientelistic networks are prevalent in many less developed countries today in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in their worst form and even in the US in more subtle forms. They have detrimental effects in the provision of public services and other development outcomes (P. Keefer, 2007; Keefer & Vlaicu, 2008). There is considerable agreement that patronage is one of the major factors for poor and inefficient public services provision. This is essential because it determines who gets what from services including education, health and agricultural extension services.
Public administration and bureaucracy is inherently a political activity. Complete autonomy of the civil service is not practical and is not even desired. Even in the most advanced civil-service systems, discretionary appointments still occur. Furthermore, patronage systems are not by definition inefficient or corrupt (Merilee S. Grindle, 2012). But, it is necessary to shield the civil service from overt political control and provide some level of autonomy in the technical design and implementation of programs and policies. On top of attempts at changing attitudes and culture, there is a need for fundamental changes in institutions and legislatures to ensure continuity and sustainability of political developments. The Pendleton Act is such a case. The core concept is providing a charter for ‘the substitution of political criteria for merit-based criteria in the selection, retention, promotion, rewards, and disciplining of members of the public service’ (Peters and Pierre, 2004). This conveys performance-accountability on top of political accountability in the system.
Prior to the 1880’s, there were reports of mounting incompetence, graft, corruption and theft in the US public sector which set in motion widespread public demand for civil service reform. We face similar challenges in many developing countries, today. In 1883, something dramatic happened, that provided the urgency and momentum to the enactment of the Pendleton Act. Charles Guiteau, a ‘disappointed office-seeker’ assassinated President James Garfield. This set in motion one of the most effective civil service reforms. Soon after, the National Civil Service Reform League was established to coordinate reform activities. There was a conscious decision to engage in a massive public education campaign to arouse public awareness and sentiments against patronage. On January 16, 1883; despite strong resistance, the president signed the Pendleton Act into law. Successes of the Act in improving performance of public services is well documented. The hidden upshot is that it helped build a middle class that is independent of the ruling political elite, which might also serve as a power balancing mechanism.
There is an inherent temptation in policy circles as well as in academics to shadow the most contemporary fad in research. However, research often progresses steadily. Policy consensus is often reached over a long period of time, after a series of practices in various contexts and adaptations. The Pendleton case is such ideal example that has shown resilience across many countries. The UK, France, the then Prussia, Japan and many other countries have underwent similar civil service reforms. There are comparable attempts in current day Latin America. Such reforms in much of Africa, however have been lacking. The Pendleton Act provides a framework to think about civil service reform in current day developing economies.
So, what are the lessons for governance in development in current day developing economies?
- The first general lesson is looking for time tested ideas and policy structures instead of trying to catch onto the most recent research idea. Policy worthy ideas often develop steadily.
- Initial steps towards reforming public sector should consider the recruitment and reward process earnestly.
- It is critical to understand the existing historical context for the evolution of practices in the civil service. Strong resistance to change is often the norm than the exception in pursing such goals. Hence a prudent elite compromise is necessary for the initial success of the policy.
- We often suggest transparency and accountability frameworks as essential components to improve the public sector performance. Yet, it is not clear how we can ensure continuity and impartiality of these initiatives so that they stand the test of time. Promoting landmark legislation and institutionalizing the process and the practice helps ensure continuity and sustainability of the program.
Patronage is central to most civil service institutions in many countries. It is critical that countries promote civil service reforms so that governments can enhance the technical expertise of their civil service, while providing greater autonomy. This is achieved through landmark legislation and practices that institutionalize clear procedures in the functioning of the civil service. The Pendleton Act provides an excellent lesson in perspective.