Trump’s New Executive Order on the Civil Service Poses a Grave Corruption Threat

Last week, President Trump issued a new Executive Order that, if implemented, could dramatically change the U.S. federal civil service—and in so doing threatens to subvert one of the most important bulwarks against corruption in all of U.S. law.

First, a quick synopsis of what the order does: Federal civil service laws are complex, but simplifying a bit, the bulk of U.S. civil service positions fall under something called the “competitive service” (also known as the “merit system”), in which hiring is based on competitive examinations administered by the Office of Personnel Management. Furthermore, those holding competitive service positions can only be removed for good cause (that is, they can’t be fired at will), and removals of such officials are reviewable by an independent commission called the Merit Systems Protection Board. Also importantly, those in the competitive service are entitled to union representation. Not all federal positions have these protections; the most senior civil servants are part of a different system (the “Senior Executive Service”), and there are a number of other relatively narrowly drawn exemptions for particular classes of jobs, typically those for which hiring by competitive examination is not practical (the “excepted service”). President Trump’s new Executive Order would shift from the competitive service to the excepted service any position that has “a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character.” If that sounds very broad, it’s because it is. The Executive Order, if implemented, could shift tens of thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands, of federal civil service positions out of the competitive service, thus giving the President the authority to fire the holders of those positions at will, as well as the authority to replace them with political appointees.

It’s not entirely clear whether the new order is legal. The relevant statute does contain a provision that allows the President to create “necessary exceptions” from the merit system insofar as “conditions of good government warrant.” Past presidents have exercised this authority, though to the best of my (limited) knowledge, President Trump’s Executive Order is unprecedented in both the breadth of its coverage and the thinness of its proffered justifications. That might matter, because there are a handful of prior court opinions (though none at the Supreme Court level) that suggest that the President’s authority to exempt positions from the merit system is not unlimited. It’s also not certain whether the Executive Order will ever go into effect. If Joe Biden wins next week’s election, he could reverse the order as soon as he’s inaugurated, and it’s unclear whether the Trump Administration will be able effect any actual reclassifications under the order prior to inauguration day. (The order itself calls on all agencies to prepare a preliminary list of affected positions by inauguration day, but it’s possible that agencies might move faster and reclassify some positions before then.)

For purposes of the present post, I want to put those issues aside. I also will put aside, for now, broader questions of whether the Executive Order would worsen the politicization of federal agencies or undermine their overall quality (themes I’ve explored in other work). Instead, my objective here is to elaborate on why this Executive Order, if implemented, poses such a significant corruption threat. To do that, let’s consider three forms of corruption (or corruption-facilitating practices) that the civil service merit system is meant to constrain, and the impact that this Executive Order would have on each: Continue reading

Guest Post: To Combat Corruption, Argentina Must Insist on Meritocratic Hiring in the Civil Service

Today’s guest post is from Professor Ignacio A. Boulin Victoria of the Universidad Austral School of Law (Buenos Aires, Argentina) and Fulbright Scholar Eliana Kanefield.

Currently, over 3.9 million people work for the public sector in Argentina, constituting nearly 27% of Argentina’s workforce—the third-highest proportion in Latin America and the Caribbean (after only Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago), and well above the regional average of 18%. Working in the public sector in Argentina has substantial advantages, including strong employment security (it is extremely difficult to be fired from public sector positions in Argentina) and substantially higher salaries than comparable jobs in the private sector. It’s thus unsurprising that the competition for public sector jobs is fierce. To take just one example, when the Province of Mendoza created 114 new public sector positions, there were more than 30.000 applicants.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with the multitude of advantages public sector workers enjoy, this system gives rise to a structural problem: the system largely serves politicians’ friends and family. Officially, entry into the public sector is governed by a set of robust requirements and competitive examinations. But this is a façade. In reality, most people who get a job in the public sector do so because they have the right connections. They are usually friends, relatives, or members of the same political party of the person doing the hiring. An example of the clear disregard for the standards and systems in place is that, as of 2017, only 2% of senior management public sector employees had passed the “demanding” entry examinations and requirements designated by the government, and only 6% of these positions were filled through an open and fair recruitment procedure (compared to 90% in Chile). From 2015 to 2017, the proportion of senior public sector management positions filled by people who met the official professional requirements mandated by the job description decreased from 32% to 18%, while the proportion of these professionals who had education beyond a high school degree decreased from 72% to 66%. Admittedly, some of the public servants hired outside of the regular process do have the right qualifications, but even in those cases there’s still the inherent unfairness that potential applicants without connections don’t have the opportunity to compete for these jobs.

This failure of meritocracy worsens Argentina’s corruption problem, in three ways: Continue reading

The Urgent Need for Innovation in India’s Public-Sector Appointments Process

A public sector job is one of the most prized forms of employment in India, for a variety of reasons including prestige, attractive entry-level pay, a multitude of employment benefits, and unparalleled job security. The selection process is governed by a constitutionally-mandated scheme involving competitive examinations, and the competition for places is maddeningly intense, with millions of aspirants vying for a handful of vacancies; many candidates spend years “waiting” to clear the exam. The competitive examination system for public service appointments dates back to a 19th-century effort by the British Imperial Civil Service to crack down on corruption and patronage; after independence, India choses to retain this selection method, for similar anticorruption reasons. But it hasn’t worked: despite “merit-based” appointments, the Indian public service has remained plagued with corruption and bribery—and all too often, as in the recent  multi-billion-dollar scams that hit Indian public-sector banks, public officials are at the heart of criminal conspiracies.

Common explanations for the persistence of corruption in the Indian civil service are the relatively low pay of government jobs (notwithstanding the benefits and perks), as well as the excessive size of India’s public sector overall. Both points are valid, but we also need to consider problems with the selection process itself. Worryingly, research has suggested that the Indian public sector attracts corrupt candidates (see here and here), which contributes to the persistence of a culture of corruption in the civil service. Two reforms to the current selection system could potentially help reduce this problem: Continue reading

Tanzania’s President Magufuli Bulldozes the Civil Service: Is This an Anticorruption Breakthrough?

For decades (perhaps longer), the corruption problem in Sub-Saharan Africa has seemed intractable. With only a handful of exceptions (such as Botswana, and more recently Rwanda), Sub-Saharan African countries score poorly on measures like Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), and direct surveys of African citizens tend to confirm that the frequency of petty bribery, while both lower and more variable than some Westerners think, are much higher than in most other countries. Declarations of war on corruption have also been a feature of African politics for decades, to the point where both citizens themselves and outside observers have grown cynical about the will or capacity of leaders to clean up the system.

But there are some preliminary, hopeful signs that in at least some major Sub-Saharan countries, things may be starting to change for the better. The country that probably gets the most attention, at least among commentators outside of Africa, seems to be Nigeria, where President Buhari—a former strongman-style President whom some have characterized as a kind of “born-again” reformer—has made anticorruption a centerpiece of both his election campaign and his administration. (For some discussions of President Buhari’s anticorruption efforts, on this blog and elsewhere, see here, here, here, and here.) But to me—as a non-expert with only the most superficial knowledge of the region or its politics—the more interesting developments are actually occurring in Tanzania, under the administration of President John Magufuli. Continue reading

Can U.S. Efforts To Fight Vote Buying Offer Lessons for Others?

Vote buying—the practice of providing or promising cash, gifts, jobs, or other things of value to voters to induce them to support a candidate in an election—is illegal in 163 countries, yet it is a widespread and seemingly intractable problem in many parts of the developing world. In Ghana, for example, incumbents distribute outboard motors to fishermen and food to the rural electorate. In the Philippines, politicians distribute cash and plum short-term jobs. In 2015, Nigerian incumbents delivered bags of rice with images of the president ahead of the election. And Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film Happy People shows a politician cheerfully delivering dried goods along with musical entertainment to an utterly isolated village of trappers in Siberia (49 minutes into the film). Thus, recent instances of vote buying are more varied than the simple cash for vote exchange; they include awarding patronage jobs and purposefully targeting social spending as a reward for political support.

Vote buying not only distorts the outcomes of elections, but it also hurts the (usually poor) communities where this practice is rampant. It might be tempting to say that at least those who sell their votes receive something from their government, but in fact, once these citizens are bought off, their broader interests are left out of the government’s decision-making process, as the incentive to provide public goods to that group disappears. A study in the Philippines, for example, found that vote buying correlates with lower public investments in health and higher rates of malnourishment in children.

While some commentators occasionally (and condescendingly) suggest that vote buying is a product of non-Western political norms and expectations, this could not be further from the truth. Although wealthy democracies like the United States today experience very little crude vote buying, vote buying in the U.S. was once just as severe as anything we see today in the developing world. In fact, during George Washington’s first campaign for public office in 1758, he spent his entire campaign budget on alcohol in an effort to woo voters to the polls. By the 19th century, cash and food occasionally supplemented the booze, particularly in times of depression. Even as late as 1948, a future president won his senate campaign through vote buying and outright fraud.

Yet while U.S. politics today is certainly not corruption-free (see here, here, and here), it has managed to (mostly) solve the particular problem of vote buying. Does the relative success of certain U.S. efforts hold any lessons for younger democracies? One must always be cautious in drawing lessons from the historical experience of countries like the U.S. for modern postcolonial states, both because the contexts are quite different and because suggesting that other countries can learn from the U.S. experience can sometimes come off as patronizing. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the United States’ historical strategy to combat vote buying might be relevant to those countries struggling with the problem today. Let me highlight a few of them: Continue reading