Whatever Happened To The Federal Civil Service Exam?

Here`s an excerpt from my feature article in the September 10, 2007 issue of The American Conservative on the hidden crisis of quality in the federal civilian workforce:

In its mid-20th Century prime, the federal government matched up reasonably well in efficiency and effectiveness against, say, Sears-Roebuck. Today, however, it`s blown away by Wal-Mart`s relentless improvements.

For example, in June, while the Senate was blithely considering mandating a convoluted new immigration system for the federal bureaucracy to administer, the State Department`s nearly century-old responsibility for issuing passports was melting down under the strain of merely a moderate increase in demand predictably caused by a law passed three years before. In an era of cheap networked computing, many Americans still had their summer travel plans ruined by federal incompetence. …

Clearly, growing economic inequality leaves the civil service hard pressed to compete for the finest workers versus Goldman Sachs`s bonuses and Google`s stock options.

Ameliorating the pay gap would be expensive. Much cheaper, yet seemingly unthinkable in the current climate, would be for the federal government to do a better job of choosing among it job applicants by employing a tool used by both colleges and the military in picking whom to take: standardized testing.

In fact, the feds themselves once had an excellent test for entry-level job applicants. One of the last malignant relics of the Carter Administration is the enduring hash it made of civil servant hiring by abolishing the Professional and Administrative Career Examination (PACE) in January 1981.

That this disastrous step has disappeared down the memory hole exemplifies the reigning prejudice in modern America against publicly discussing how best to select people. In private, selection is increasingly an obsession, with the competition to win admission to elite colleges (and even, among the New York media class, elite preschools) ever-growing. Ironically, one of the most popular hobbies to emerge in recent decades has been “fantasy football,” which is nothing but selection: fans draft players and then see whose “team” has the best statistics each Sunday.

Yet, nobody wonders about how to select better civil servants. …

Testing has been shown to work well for selecting federal white-collar employees as well. A 1986 study by Frank L. Schmidt of the federal Office of Personnel Management found that hiring “on valid measures of cognitive ability, rather than on non-test procedures (mostly evaluations of education and experience), produces … a 9.7% increase in output among new hires.” Indeed, problem-solving skills may be more useful in government than in private industry because having a salesman`s personality is less important.

Compared to soldiers, testing for entry level hiring is perhaps even more crucial for civilians because civil servants are notoriously hard to fire. Moreover, the feds mostly promote from within, seldom headhunting for middle level managers from the private sector.

Hence, government workers are rather like students at the top universities, who are almost never flunked out. At Harvard, 98 percent of freshmen are allowed to graduate, which puts intense stress on Harvard`s admission process to not let in clunkers. So, despite the SAT`s infamous political incorrectness, Harvard demands high SAT scores, with incoming students averaging about 1500 out of a possible 1600. Whatever their other failings, their SAT scores ensure they have the smarts to make it through Harvard.

Similarly, the federal civil service once invested in increasingly sophisticated brainpower tests to identify young people who could prove competent senior managers in future decades. The Junior Management Assistant test debuted in 1948, followed by the Federal Service Entrance Examination (FSEE) in 1955, a test roughly comparable to the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) now required by grad schools.

In 1972, a lawsuit claimed that that the FSEE was biased because blacks and Hispanics didn`t score as well as whites on average. So, the Nixon Administration deep-sixed it and introduced the sophisticated PACE, which was elaborately validated as predicting performance in 118 federal jobs. The PACE consisted of multiple subtests, which could be weighted differently for each post.

Frustratingly, despite PACE`s impressive predictive power, blacks and Latinos continued to tally lower on it. In another federal discrimination case, the defeated Carter Administration signed a consent decree in January 1981 agreeing to abolish PACE. Workarounds were “temporarily” implemented until a non-discriminatory general test could be devised.

Twenty-six years later, the Luevano decree`s makeshifts still control federal hiring procedures. (No such new test has proven feasible.) Federal hiring has devolved into a decentralized hodge-podge. There is some job-related testing, but most agencies emphasize credentials, and assess them in a mindlessly mechanical fashion to boot. …

But, hey, nobody seems to mind. Evidently, it`s good enough for government work.