Which part of the federal bureaucracy would you like to work for? Why? What are the rules of recruitment for federal bureaucrats? Why and how did the US government switch from the patronage (spoils) system to the merit system? What do you think is the difference between a government bureaucrat and a politician?

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In which part of the federal bureaucracy one hopes to work is entirely subjective. The federal bureaucracy currently encompasses a myriad of government agencies performing thousands of duties, and it is composed of individuals who labor in the Department of Labor or who attempt to manage the nation's economy at...

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In which part of the federal bureaucracy one hopes to work is entirely subjective. The federal bureaucracy currently encompasses a myriad of government agencies performing thousands of duties, and it is composed of individuals who labor in the Department of Labor or who attempt to manage the nation's economy at the Department of the Treasury. There are foreign service officers and civil service employees at the Department of State, and there are military personnel and civil servants at the Department of Defense. There are departments of Energy, Education, Health and Human Services, Justice, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and Commerce. There are thousands of government employees at the Central Intelligence Agency, and there are thousands more employed with the Legislative Branch of government, in effect, Congress. In which agency or department one hopes to work is generally contingent upon one's interests and background. The individual student needs to decide in which among these various federal agencies he or she would feel comfortable working. An individual interested in international trade would find a home at the Department of Commerce or State; someone interested in health care for the poor could seek employment at the Department of Health and Human Services. 

In order to attempt to minimize abuse of federal hiring processes such as the age-old practice of patronage, in which a powerful elected official or federal bureaucrat helps a family member, friend, or associate attain employment with the government without undergoing a competitive hiring process, a stringent set of laws was passed over many years dictating the processes that must be used by hiring officials in order to ensure the integrity of the process. Beginning with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, the government has continuously sought to ensure that the federal civil service hiring process was free from manipulation by government officials and by others. Passage of this Act was the first major effort at eliminating patronage hiring practices. Its success, however, has been spotty at best as federal civil service positions continue to be subject to questionable hiring practices. Under Title 5 of the U.S. Code, most civil service jobs must be openly competed through the federal Office of Personnel Management. There are exceptions, such as for what are called the Senior Executive Service (SES), which is composed of the most experienced members of the federal bureaucracy, all of whom have worked in the government for around twenty years or more and who have risen through the bureaucracy's ranks. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 restated the merit system role in federal hiring while carving out the exception for the SES.

Politicians and civil servants are different categories of government employees. Politicians are elected by the people they represent, mostly in Congress, and must be reelected every two years for the House of Representatives and six years for the Senate. Government bureaucrats, in contrast, are permanent employees of the government. They are, as noted, hired through a competitive process, and their promotions are supposed to be based solely on merit. They may serve in their positions as long as they wish to—unless the position or office in which they work is abolished. While politicians come and go, bureaucrats provide continuity and expertise that remains in place year-in and year-out.

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In deciding which part of the federal bureaucracy you would want to work for, you can choose among the five different types of organizations in the bureaucracy: cabinet departments (such as state, education, defense, labor or the interior, among others), independent regulatory agencies (such as the Securities and Exchange Commission or SEC), independent executive agencies (such as NASA), government corporations (such as the Post Office), and presidential commissions. Decide which agency would fit your interests. 

In the past, the president often gave out bureaucratic positions based on friendship or political alliances, a system referred to as "patronage" or the "spoils system." In 1881, a man named Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield after Garfield denied Guiteau a diplomatic posting. As a result, the government passed the Pendleton Act, which instituted a merit-based civil service in which employees are hired based on their knowledge, not their political connections. Now, 90% of the bureaucracy is filled by the Civil Service Commission, a federal employment agency. To be recruited and fill a civil service job, you must pass an exam that demonstrates your knowledge and fitness for the job. The difference between civil service employees and politicians is that politicians are elected for a certain term, while civil service employees are chosen based generally on the results of tests and are very difficult to fire because of political pressures. 

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