September 9, 2007

Whatever happened to the federal civil service exam?

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. From my American Conservative article:

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.


Anonymous said...

I think the lack of testing is why at the research/academic oriented government agencies there is such an emphasis on advanced degrees. At least at some of those agencies in many of the postions the work really could be done with someone with a bachelors, but they can't be sure who with a bachelors is qualified, so they look for people with higher degrees since it further weeds out low performers. That and for applications you have to write answers to 25 questions to show what you know.

And yes, for some areas of the country (like DC of all places), the pay does suck. So, you go to graduate school to come out to lousy pay.

Anonymous said...

Frustratingly, despite PACE's impressive predictive power, blacks and Latinos continued to tally lower on it.

"Despite" PACE's predictive power, blacks and Latinos do worse on it? I think the author really means "because of" its predictive power.

Or he should mean that, anyway.

This article only demonstrates how much damage "anti-discrimination laws" have done and will continue to do to democratic government. John Derbyshire had a good quote recently about the demand in his community to fire the high school principal, but they couldn't because she threatened an anti-discrimination suit.

One-by-one, control of everything in our democracy is being taken away by such laws.

When the autopsy on democracy is performed, lawyers, judges, anti-discrimination laws, and immigration will be found to be the culprits - if the coroner's allowed to make that judgement without violating any speech codes or anti-discrimination laws.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I lost the reference but in the Washington DC area, in many Federal departments and agencies whites are under-represented and blacks are over-represented. Of course there is zero effort to institute accurate racial balances. Five of the wealthiest US counties ring Washington DC and two of these counties are essentially black. Meaning many Blacks have very good Federal jobs. How much is due to affirmative action and racial preferences? I can only guess that a heck of a lot is

*** Hispanics are not yet major riders on the Federal gravy train

Anonymous said...


As someone who works in the Federal Government I can confirm that the quality of employees has declined over the the last 20 years. This decline is due to three reasons:

1) Federal pay has not kept up with the cost of housing.

2) Bush has done everything possible to get rid of Federal job security and to increase the power management to fire/hire/demote at will.

3)White men Know that the game is rigged against them. The usual goal in every Fed agency is to have at least Fifty percent of management women, 5 percent to black men, etc. management that looks like America. If you have more women/minority men so much the better. End result, if your a high performing white male your chances for advancement are slim; unless your superman.

Anonymous said...

Nice observation, thanks. I don’t visit your blog every day, but when I
visit your blog I enjoy browsing through your old posts and try to catch up
what I have missed since my last visit.

Anonymous said...


Is post yours or someone elses? The way you have it indented makes it look like you are quoting someone else.

Anonymous said...

If I'm not mistaken, the State Department still uses a lengthy general-knowledge test to hire for foreign service positions. I knew some people who took it years ago and all said it was horrendously difficult.

Anonymous said...

This isn't a case of something being tossed into the memory hole, it's more like it got sucked into a memory black hole. No pun intended.

Googling "Professional and Administrative Career Examination" only brings up 2170 hits. Most of the hits are for moldering copies of the exam or prep guides on online booksellers.

There appear to be a few references to the exam in scholarly journals during the 1980s.

Adding "discrimination" to the search reduces it to roughly 500.

That's amazing. The qualification standards for the largest employer in America were scrapped, nothing was put in place of it and no one is talking about it. Granted, it covers the most boring of the boring subjects, human resources and government administrative policy. You would think there would be at least some discussion of it among government wonks though.

Steve Sailer said...

Right, that sums up my feeling while I was researching this: Everybody my age grew up hearing about _the_ civil service exam, but it turns out that a few Carter Administration officials threw it away in the last rushed days of their regime ... and nobody even remembers this important bit of history anymore in the slightest.

Anonymous said...

A few more scattered observations on this topic:

"Luevano v. Devine" and "Luevano v. Campbell" in Google turns up a mere 138 hits combined. The private sector equivalent case "Griggs v. Duke Power" turns up 59,700. The commentary on the case is as striking as the numbers; Only a handful in the federal testing case, and piles of it Griggs.

With this case the federal government seems to have folded when it comes to testing in hiring. Private industry tilted at the windmill for a few more years, then gave up as well.

Every few years you hear some noise about how the best and brightest of our college graduates are turning down public service in droves and going into the private sector. Big surprise when your college degree is the same as the dullards, and advancing means waiting in line with everyone else.

I think this might be counterbalanced by older people who transfer to the public sector after leaving the private sector. Perhaps military people come over as well, with a veteran's preference in hiring?

Saddest, and funniest, term stumbled upon while looking at this mess: "representative bureaucracy". This is an actual selling point for the PC crew.

The case against testing, that it is not tailored enough to the actual job, is weird. Even repetitive jobs have weird things that pop up and require general intelligence every once in a while.

Getting rid of the tests appears to have changed the internal culture of federal employers as well. From what I can see, 30 years later from the outside, people got promoted by studying for the next round of tests. You apparently had to be self motivated to prepare. This must have carried over into the actual job as well.

Anonymous said...

I was in an Asian Politics class where a Korean professor was speaking of the civil service examinations of Korea and Japan when he asked if we had anything like that in the United States. A room full of political science majors/minors and no one had a clue. To this day I'd supposed there was one of some sort, but had never actually looked into it. Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

The old civil service exam could launch someone of high intelligence from obscurity to long-term success. Paul O'Neill took it in Fresno, I think, and landed a high level economic job in Washington based on his phenomenally high score. He then went on to a lucrative career in business, including a stint as CEO of Alcoa, before being appointed Treasury Secretary in Bush's first term.

About 12 years ago I briefly considered taking the Foreign Service Officer exam. I got the study guide from Barnes & Noble: that test is a bear.

MensaRefugee said...

At least the Canadian Government still uses the Wonderlic and GCT2 (both IQ tests) openly. Whether they weigh it according to its importance... is another question.

Not to mention their annoying emphasis on degrees.

Anonymous said...

I remember the FSEE exam fondly. It was tough. I did well enough to get selected for Management Intern which was for the top scoring FSEE candidates. It was fun to interview with the various agencies and compair their programs from elaborate (Post Office of all places) to pitiful (Customs). I decided to go back in the Army as an officer and have always wondered about the road not taken.

morefaves said...

The PACE Test was the perfect test for a College Grad of reasonable intelligence, who did not know specifically what he/she wanted to do in their Professional Life, to have options, and open the doors to what used to be a satisfying career with The Federal Government. There was absolutely nothing discriminatory about it. It's no coincidence that it's disappearance, paired with the Reagan administration's disdain for Federal Service, that has continued since that time, has plunged the Civil Service into depths it has never recovered from. There needs to be another General PACE type test, to man the Civil Service, as the Baby Boomers that manned the Service have left and/or are just about to leave, and have caused Civil Service to have a massive brain drain.

Anonymous said...

I took the FSEE about 1972. 100 points was a perfect score. You also were awarded 5 points as a veteran and, I think, 10 points as a disabled vet. There were very few openings in the Federal government at that time. Most of those hired scored 95 or above which made it unlikely that those without the vet's bonuses would qualify. Of course, those hired were very bright, but now they have retired.

Anonymous said...

Anyone know the name or citation of the 1972 case mentioned?