Humanitarian Aspects of the Merit System, December 3, 1914

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Humanitarian Aspects of The Merit System


Whenever I get an opportunity to speak upon the subject of civil service, I like to do what I can in connecting it with human nature, of which the chairman has just spoken, to show, so far as I am able to, civil service reformers and civil service commissioners what seems to me the next most important step in the development of the merit system as applied to public offices, and that is in some ways to make it a little more attractive, to endear it more than has been done to the public affection.

There is something the matter, is there not, that it has become in the mind of so many people a mere mechanical process and as I listened to the fine address of your president, it seemed to me that his suggestion was most valuable, that the civil service commissioners administering civil service in its federal aspects, should have some power by which they might return a woman who had been out of the service a little more than a year to a position which she had presumably very well filled before, or a man who had recovered from his illness a month too late to come back to his position. Of course, the public would say those two people, if they had performed their service well before ought to be returned; that it would be a great loss to the service to have them kept out because of this regulation. The president ought not to be bothered with it, of course; he ought not to be expected to give his time to such a matter, but it ought to be done, it seems to me without question and because it cannot be done without criticism, without breaking -- not the spirit of civil service -- but without breaking the regular civil service routine, is one of the things that make it difficult for many people to care for it, to care for it with the devotion, or the understanding due it and they do not stand by it with the same ardor and enthusiasm that they would stand by a personal friend or a politician who had befriended them. Then the desire to reach the caliph is [page 2] very deeply planted in the human heart, I am afraid. Many people do not care for even-handed justice as much as they care for the chance that their particular grievance shall be heard and shall be listened to by someone in power. That is human nature and it has to be reckoned with. Two years ago I was in Egypt and we had a number of little affairs given for us by English judges there who are members of the international court and they spoke several times, I remember one evening a very brilliant [exegesis] given by one of the English judges at this dinner table and he spoke of this irreconcilable -- I was going to say irresistible -- desire that he found in the heart of the easterner for finality. He don't care to be treated with justice, that seemed to be very slow and disagreeable treatment. He was quite willing to be put out and to be put down a hundred times if there was a chance that the next time, the hundred and first time, his claim might be heard and his personal relation considered. Now, I am sure that in some wise that in the broader justice and in the broader view of human nature that this feeling, that this desire can be incorporated in the merit system because until it does, until the merit system makes that adjustment, it has not squared itself with human nature.

I should like to give a few illustrations, if I may, of the sort of things which it seems to me we ought to do in this matter and which perhaps are being done not through the federal service, but some things that have been brought to my attention in the last two years in the city service. For instance, in the matter of -- shall I say the efficiency department which we all admire very much in Chicago; there is something to be done even further than tasting the efficiency of the civil servants, that is to reward that efficiency by pushing forward the best men and dropping the men who cannot hold their position at all, or ought not to hold their positions. It is of course a step forward, the whole matter of detailed examination or the professional examination, but if in addition to that those civil service men felt that the civil service commissioners were looking at the situation as a whole, that they were guarding them as the soldiers is more or less [page 3] guarded when he goes to war and becomes part of a great national organization; as has been so often said before he is fed and cared for and nursed if he is sick and if he is sick he is cared for to the end of his days and when he is wounded he is liable to have a pension to the very last day of his life. If some such assistance as that could be brought into the civil service, showing a grateful country afterwards, the people who are serving it in those humble and less glorious positions, I believe that would lift it up out of this suspicion of being a mechanical process and put it in the place it deserves, of a great humanitarian and great human movement. I was told for example of the conditions in the Cook County Hospital, a place as you all know where all the poor people who can afford no hospital, repair. The menus of that great hospital were practically arranged by the cook, a man who had a salary perhaps of sixty dollars a month and he was practically arranging the diet for these hundreds of people, not only the patients but the doctors and the nurses and all the rest of them. Well now, of course, that was too much for the cook; he couldn't do it and do it well and the menus were very little changed for thirty years and it took this civil service commission to suggest a county dietician and create a position of county dietician and put in that position a woman who had taught diet in the University of Chicago School of Education, in connection with the University of Chicago, a woman well qualified to prepare the food, to prepare it to suit; but before that they didn't think much about it and didn't consider it very important. That seems to me is the part of civil service, to see not only to efficient administration from the point of view of the civil servant, but from the whole situation of the whole group.

I see a great deal of the letter carriers because for many years I have been the head of a sub-postal station and I am considered on the part of many letter carriers, I am happy to say, as a co-laborer and they come to me to tell many of their difficulties. They felt very strongly exactly what the poor teacher felt, exactly what any body of people feel who had studied very hard in order to better the service and have studied very hard in order [page 4] to be promoted in that service. They have all the disadvantages of civil service and none of the advantages. They are not assured a pension and no one is looking after their comfort as they go along from one stage to another, that no one is very much concerned that the burden shall not be too heavy. Take, for instance, a letter carrier, where three of four apartment houses are erected in his territory, which multiplies the number of letters he has to deliver enormously. Then he has to make the complaint. There is no one watching the situation and he feels that he is not being watched over and cared for in the same way, his comforts are not being watched over in the same way that he is being watched for any mistakes or slips he may make. The detective side of civil service, the desire to find out the rascals and turn the rascals out, which was more or less the cry when civil service was instituted, it seems to me still clings to it too strongly, perhaps not for efficiency in a certain way but still clings to it too strongly to make it appeal as it deserves to us and must be before we are sure it is established as a part of the permanent government agency of our American life. And many other things, of course, occur to me as I look back over my long experience in Chicago. Years ago, in Dunning, I remember for instance, when Dunning was not only the poor house, as we called the poor farm, -- the infirmary but also a great many insane patients were to be cared for and they could not get a good farmer. Over and over again, the farm was a loss to the county and always failed, of course, to supply the inmates with the potatoes and onions and other things which it ought so easily to have produced and therefore a civil service examination was held and a civil service farmer went in and everybody was very dubious about this civil service farmer because it would seem such a difficult thing to test, but the man went there and after the second year had a party and the commissioners invited there friends and we were called upon to view these huge mounds of potatoes and onions and cabbages and other things which were growing there to feed this vast collection of people throughout the winter. I was very anxious to run up a flag. I said "Why not put [page 5] a notice on those mountains of cabbage and other vegetables showing that they were raised by a civil service farmer," and everybody said "That would be very absurd, the cabbages are there, the cabbages are going to be eaten and that is all there is about it"; but of course that is the kind of opportunity, it seems to me we lose, as adherents of civil service, we don't "whoop it up" so to speak, as politicians do, all of the time. The commissioners were there and we were very friendly and they were very proud of this showing and some of them were inclined to take the credit to themselves, in some mysterious way for this civil service farmer because all of this had been produced in this given administration, but really the credit was due to the merit system, to the men who had insisted that the farmer should not be employed merely because he was a friend of one of the commissioners, -- although he might have been a sewer contractor or any other thing but a farmer as a in former days, but we do not seize those opportunities to show the success of such service and to translate it back into actual foundation and actual saving, not only of money, but in ministration to the comfort and health of the people who are now dependent upon the officers who are put over them, who control them.

Now, I am saying this very badly because it is late and I am sliding over the points I wish to make and am using only one or two illustrations, but I am sure many other illustrations occur to all of us during the years in which the merit system has made its way in America and has become established here and there, in almost all the cities and all the states in some sort of fashion. We have not done enough to show its advantages to the people from the point of view of the great public benefaction it is to the people.

I have been living in one ward twenty-five years which is ruled by a very successful politician and I have had occasion from time to time to see how he does it and I am always longing to turn into civil service the methods which the alderman in the 19th Ward uses, and of course we would turn into civil service many of the things which he does. Many of the things which he does could [page 6] be done by the servants employed under the merit system. We never point it out and no one ever makes any point about the affection which it poured out upon him for doing the same thing which is done more satisfactorily through civil service. Take the street-cleaning department, he had made employment for the men who sweep the streets and each man who had a chance to sweep the streets was perfectly devoted to this alderman and greatly concerned for him and his re-election and I might say he has been steadily elected for twenty-eight years. That kind of thing we could do much more, if we wanted to. If we could assure the men who are now sweeping the streets with the some degree of certainty of their hold on the position, that they are paid better than they used to be paid, that they have better hours than they used to have; that much more concern is taken in regard to their comfort, all sorts of things could be pointed out and the point is that they discover that they are free from the man, who game them intermittent jobs or took away at his pleasure and they are very grateful to the splendid system which has given them so much more.

Or course, it is hard, I suppose, to humanize a system but I do believe that the Civil Service Commissioners who have done so much in Chicago and elsewhere, if they put their minds to this part -- to this need of civil service -- might do a great deal more in that direction and they would get much more devotion and enthusiasm for the whole system and for the whole movement than has yet been secured. I do not say this, in any sense, I am sure, by way of criticism; but sometimes people who start a thing have to fight so hard to get it and get absorbed in its success, do not see that they are leaving behind them a trail of possible misunderstandings and misapprehension which might be rectified if they turned their attention to it and I am not going to say anything more. It is 20 minutes part ten and I am sure you have had enough civil service for [tonight]. I will only say that perhaps some time you will all look about you and find out ways of making this wonderful thing a little more engaging than it is at present.

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