How removing politics sped up the post office

 The Pendleton Act of 1883 shielded U.S. civil service workers from politics for the first time. A new study shows how this protection increased government efficiency and effectiveness.

A US Postal Service mail carrier climbs carrying mail climbs into a delivery van.
A USPS mail carrier in Fullerton, Calif. (Image: Matt Gush/AdobeStock)

A report on New York City’s post offices in the 19th century described the “incompetency, neglect, confusion, and drunkenness” of postal staff. Hundreds of bags of undelivered mail were scattered throughout one building, including a book addressed to the vice president of the United States.

It was a time of political patronage when civil service workers were offered jobs in exchange for partisan donations and allegiance. The passage of the Civil Service Reform Act in 1883—better known as the Pendleton Act—changed that by replacing discretionary appointments with rule-based hiring and abolishing mandatory political contributions.

New research by Berkeley Haas associate professor Guo Xu, with Abhay Aneja of Berkeley Law, demonstrates how these protections improved the quality and efficiency of the post office, particularly by dramatically reducing turnover.

“The introduction of civil service protections really works to limit political interference,” Xu says. “That in turn helps improve the quality of public good provision.”

While the research is historical, it offers lessons today as former President and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump calls for rolling back civil service protections.

Fewer errors, faster delivery

The postal service expanded rapidly in the 19th century, serving as a central clearinghouse not only for personal communication but also economic transactions, with businesses advertising and completing transactions by mail. By the 1880s, postal workers constituted 34% of the entire federal workforce.

Xu and Aneja looked at personnel records of federal government workers to understand what kind of people were recruited and hired by the U.S. Post Office before and after reforms. They also gathered information about delivery errors from the postmaster general. Because the Pendleton Act was rolled out in two phases—large cities in 1883, smaller cities in 1893—the researchers could study before-and-after pictures at two different times.

Comparing places that were covered by the new rules to places that were not yet covered, they found two key outcomes. Cities where the Pendleton Act was rolled out experienced a 22% reduction in delivery errors. At the same time, mail carriers, on average, increased the volume of mail they carried by up to 14%, which implies a more efficient postal service.

“We looked into what happened as the U.S. government moved away from a traditional patronage system based on discretionary political appointments,” says Xu, an economist and economic historian. “Nowadays, most governments consider civil service protection as a necessary firewall between politics and administration, yet there has been surprisingly little research on whether this policy improves the conduct of everyday government business. Our study confirms civil service protections as a good governance tool.”

“Nowadays, most governments consider civil service protection as a necessary firewall between politics and administration, yet there has been surprisingly little research on whether this policy improves the conduct of everyday government business. Our study confirms civil service protections as a good governance tool.”

Reduced turnover increases performance

Xu and Aneja expected going into the project that any improvements they saw would likely result from hiring more qualified employees, since the Pendleton Act required civil service workers to take competitive entry exams. The personnel records, however, told a different story: employees looked similar before and after the reforms, but turnover dropped dramatically, particularly during election cycles.

“In every election year before 1883, a large number of postal employees were replaced by new appointees,” Xu says. “Once reforms rolled out, these political cycles essentially vanished.”

The researchers also examined how the Pendleton Act influenced local politics. They used newspapers, which were largely partisan in the 19th century, to measure the strength of local political parties. They found that in a given city, the Pendleton Act reduced the number of partisan papers and increased the number of politically independent newspapers. Though Xu acknowledges newspapers aren’t a perfect proxy for local party power, this finding points to an important double dividend from civil service protections: Separating politics from the administration of a rank-and-file bureaucracy not only improves performance but also helps weaken the stranglehold of local partisanship.

A lesson for modern politics

Today, political appointees make up less than 1% of federal service workers, but this ratio is not a given as the civil service has come under renewed political scrutiny. In October 2020, the Trump Administration issued an executive order to reduce civil service protections—commonly known as Schedule F. While this order was subsequently rescinded by the Biden Administration, the question of civil service protections is likely to re-emerge again. “We will pass critical reforms making every executive branch employee fireable by the president of the United States,” Trump said at a recent rally in South Carolina.

Efforts to roll back civil service protections raise two concerns. First, appointments to top positions are already fraught and lengthy processes; expanding the pool of political appointees could lead to even more delays and vacancies in the federal government.

Second, hiring political loyalists to conduct the day-to-day work of government appears to be bad business. Within the post office, at the very least, history suggests this would make services both costlier and less effective.

“Reforms to limit civil service protections are typically proposed with the idea that it’s hard for politicians to control an independent civil service, and that’s often true. But the flip side is that having no civil service protections risks creating a bureaucracy staffed with yes-men who are replaced each election cycle. That means the bottom line for overall performance has so far been theoretically unclear,” Xu says. “On this question, we can contribute a partial answer: Better protections have direct consequences for personnel dynamics and, more generally, the performance of government.”

Read the paper:

Strengthening State Capacity: Civil Service Reform and Public Sector Performance during the Gilded Age
By Guo Xu and Abhay Aneja
American Economic Review, forthcoming August 2024