The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, a Step in the Right Direction

Andrew Wang

In the midst of much favorable publicity, President Jimmy Carter successfully passed the greatly anticipated Civil Service Reform Act in 1978 (CSRA). With full support from Congress which also recognized the need for such reform, Carter fulfilled his campaign promise to reform this federal civil service. [8] Today, the act is viewed as one of his most triumphant domestic policies. The act replaced the antiquated Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, which initially established boundaries for government jobs. Mainly, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act stipulated that government jobs should be awarded on a basis of merit. [1] Like the Civil Service Reform Act, it set up an agency, Civil Service Commission, to enforce the law. [1] Carter, however, was able to enact more explicit ground rules for unions as he brought some issues to the light. The act encompassed a myriad of such reforms and it was responsible for the creation of three new agencies –namely the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA).[2] These agencies therefore replaced the previous Civil Service Commission.


The Merit Systems Protection Board, although evidently with new legislation, can be seen to branch off from the previous Civil Service Commission. The MSPB was designed to be consisting of a three-person board, which will be appointed by the president for seven years. [2] Its duty is to deliver judgment appeals for federal employees, and it is bestowed power to report on whistle-blowers’ accusations of agency malpractice. The MSPB is vested authority to refer such possible criminal acts to the Attorney General’s office for prosecution. [2] To be able to do this, the agency is given powers to investigate and enforce disciplinary actions. [8] Furthermore, it also sets explicit guidelines for federal employee unions for collective bargaining. The Office of Personnel Management fills in some gaps that the MSPB cannot attend to. Created as an executive agency, it is given powers to administrate civil service laws. Its mission is “recruiting, retaining and honoring a world-class force to serve the American people.” [6] The Federal Labor Relations Council (FLRA) tied all three agencies together as it oversees the entire program. This agency agrees on major policy issues, hears appeals, and also acts upon unjust labor practice charges and representation claims. The Federal Labor Relations Council also guides parties in resolving bargaining disputes when there is no sign of compromise. [3] It outlined employee’s rights to join unions and engage in collective bargaining on specific subjects. [2]

Carter was able to achieve great success with the Civil Service Reform Act; it can be seen as the paradigm of his domestic policies. He established the Senior Executive Service, which consisted of 8,000 selected civil servants that were able to be eligible for productivity bonuses as opposed to their current arrangements. The Senior Executive Service paralleled a much anticipated senior management system and many compared it directly to the private sector. [2] The Reform Act was progressive in its system of a productivity-related merit pay, which was bolstered by the Merit Systems Protection Board, for GS-13 to GS-15 federal employees. Moreover, it provided legal protection for whistle-blowers and other potential government misconducts. Carter also included a clause that established experiments which gave line managers increased control.

Although that it is clear that the Civil Service Reform Act was a major accomplishment for Carter and a testament to the wants of civil service reformers, there have been several feeble arguments made against it. Almost all of them eventually converge to the point that federal employees, under the reform, are stripped of their rights. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Title VII of the act established into law “a system for federal employees to form, join, or assist any labor organization, or to refrain from any such activity, freely and without fear of penalty or reprisal.” [4] The claim that he completely took away their rights as a union, and to collectively bargain, is downright false. Instead, the Civil Service Reform Act was able to oversee union practices, and by setting necessary guidelines, was able to ensure fair practices. Prohibitions against strikes and slowdowns are necessary when they interfere with government operations. [2]

The Civil Service Reform Act was created duly to fix such discrepancies. Carter sought greater accountability of federal employees for their performance – and so the act bestowed more authority into the federal manager. However, this is not to say that the federal manager had the authority to indulge in malpractices. To balance it, the act also accentuates protection of the rights of the employees from potential abuses. Acting progressively, Carter included that in retrospect of the previous Watergate scandals and former President Richard Nixon’s abuse of the system. [7] Thus, under the act, more emphasis was placed on job performance, which determined pay, job retention and discipline. [5]

In conclusion, the Civil Service Reform Act was a step in the right direction on Carter’s part. Current situations called upon for current measures. And the current times called upon for exactly these measures, to regulate the federal government employment, to oversee those malicious practices on Nixon’s part are not repeated again. Carter passed the reform solely for the protection of the people – as he laid out their rights. It prohibited extensive practices that would result in such abuses like favoritism. [7] In addition, it protected citizens who divulged information about any “violation of law, rule or regulation, gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a specific and substantial danger to public health and safety.” [5] Evidently, President Carter had the rights of the American people on his mind while forming and passing this extremely vital piece of legislation.





[5] Major Acts of Congress, ©2004 Gale Cengage.


[7] Ingraham, Particia W., and David H. Rosenbloom, eds. The Promise and Paradox of Civil Service

Reform. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

[8] Vaughn, Robert G. Merit Systems Protection Board: Rights and Remedies, rev. ed. New York: Law

Journal-Seminars Press, 2003.


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