The desire for administrative reform in the United States in the late 19th century reflected an increasing awareness that politicians at the federal level could staff the offices of government with their supporters, essentially operating government outside of a system of checks and balances. This was especially true at the federal level, where a newly-elected President might fill the Cabinet and other offices of government with members of his party and other political supporters. This "spoils system," or patronage, was not unique to the United States, but politicians and critics in the US had seen the manner in which the British Government had created administrative reform in their own country, requiring prospective candidates for public office to meet certain academic requirements and to take merit-based examinations.
The system of political patronage in the US had been noted in the early years of the American Republic, but it did not become a hotbed issue until the late 19th century. Ulysses S. Grant created a Civil Service Commission in 1871, which attempted to make political appointments in Washington based on merit, but the act which had created the commission was not renewed when it expired in 1874. The assassination of President James Garfield by a disgruntled office-seeker brought this issue to the attention of Americans of all backgrounds and would result in the Pendleton Act of 1883. This act was intended to create merit-based classes in the federal civil service and to protect civil servants from coercion or intimidation by politicians. Underlying this act was the understanding that civil servants who were under the patronage of another government official would not necessarily perform their office in the interest of the public, but rather might act in the interest of whichever politician they owed their job to.
The changes instituted by the Pendleton Act are still in force. Most federal employees are required to have taken a civil service examination and/or to have met certain educational standards. Therefore, current administrative practices at the federal level do reflect the assumption that it is better to leave politics out of government administration. But, beginning in the late 70s, there began to be questions about the performance of federal employees and whether or not there was still need for administrative reform. This continues to be an issue. Arguably, a drawback of a neutral civil service is that a sitting president does not necessarily have a free hand to implement his desired policies if he has to contend with a civil service that in some ways is independent of him or her. Like the federal government, many states, like New York, have laws that attempt to limit political influence in government, still reflecting the idea that it is desirable to have a government administration that is free from issues of patronage and political influence.