Civil Service Reform in U.s. States: Structural Causes and Impacts on Delegation

Elliott Ash (University of Warwick and ETH Zurich)
Massimo Morelli (Bocconi University)
Matia Vannoni (Bocconi University)

Abstract: This paper studies the causes and consequences of civil service reforms creating an independent bureaucracy -- that is, moving from a spoils system (where the civil service is controlled by politicians) to a merit system (where bureaucrats are more independent). We first demonstrate theoretically that divided government is a key trigger of civil service reform: legislators have a stronger incentive to establish an independent bureaucracy when their interests diverge from the governor's. Taking this idea to comprehensive civil service reforms in U.S. states in the second half of the 20th century, we find that states tended to introduce stronger merit systems when there was divided government. Next, we examine the impact of these reforms on legislation using new methods from computational linguistics. We find that after civil service reform, legislators start writing more detailed statutes that contain more legal provisions. This is consistent with an agency cost model where a more independent bureaucracy requires more specific instructions to avoid bureaucratic drift, rather than an expertise model where a more professionalized bureaucracy should be given more discretion.

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