Thursday, November 19, 2009

Has the Spoils System Spoiled the CNMI?

" the victor belong the spoils..."
William L. Marcy

The CNMI electorate has its eyes on the coming run-off gubernatorial election, set for November 23, 2009. But before we vote, I think we need to step back and take a longer view of issues, of where we've been and where we're going.

I look back on the elections I've participated in--every one since 1985--and see a disturbing trend. Party politics has something to do with this, but not everything. Politicians switch parties enough to make me think that it is not the parties that decide the course of the government, but the politicians themselves.

The trend I see is away from a government that has room for selection and advancement based on merit and toward a government that rewards campaign supporters. It seems less likely now that we will, for example, have another personal secretary who serves for decades successive governors of different parties or different factions within the parties. It seems less likely now that we will have continuity among any of the upper- or even mid-level management government officials in any government office or department.

We have a small pool of talent to begin with, because of our size, and the practice of our various political winners drawing their political appointees and new hires from among their supporters means that only a portion of our small talent pool is available to any one administration.

When a political party comes to power, its leaders tend to place many of their faithful followers into important public offices. The use of public offices as rewards for political party work is known as the "Spoils System."

The Spoils System has been seen around the world and throughout time. It has been problematic in the U.S. at times, too, especially in the 19th century, when the U.S. fell far behind other nations in civil service standards of ability and government administration. It has been addressed in large part in the federal government by the Civil Service laws.

In the CNMI, we use the Spoils System. Although we have a civil service system, we have so many jobs of all kinds that are "contract" or "excepted service" that our civil service system does not protect us against the Spoils System.

One of the first political expressions I heard when I got here was the saying: "Live by the sword, die by the sword." It was applied to the employee who had a political job in one administration and then lost it in the next. The person who made the comment was rather amused about the gamesmanship of politics.

The Spoils System in the CNMI is reinforced with the immediate profit of close family members being among the rewarded. They then vote again for their meal ticket.

What is wrong with this concept? Why wouldn't you vote for the politician who is going to give you something back, something like a job for you or your family? What is the harm in using the Spoils System?

I've got some thoughts on that subject.

* The Spoils System narrows the talent pool so that we don't have enough qualified individuals in jobs that are important. What do you do when the loyal supporter isn't getting the job done? Do you replace him with the most qualified person? Or do you ignore the problem and wait until he returns to work? Do you turn a blind eye to the repeated warnings of qualified personnel about a critical problem in an essential service? Or do you do something? The Spoils Systems puts loyalty above competence and quality of job performance. If you are a person who needs someone in the government to do a good job, you might prefer the merit system.

* The Spoils System changes the focus of politicians from addressing issues to keeping their supporters happy. If you're a politician, what do you do when the government's revenues are dwindling. Do you increase your government workforce by 1,000 workers? Or do you find a way to restrain the size of government to fit more closely to the budget? If you're in the Spoils System, you hire more workers to reward them and because you're going to need their support in the election. If you have a system based on merit, you restrain the size of the workforce, and make sure you have the best workforce you can get.

*The Spoils System makes it easier to cross the line into illegal kickbacks and other criminal activity. Do you purchase, at government expense, what isn't needed so that your family has a lucrative contract because you have power and position? Do you think your job, connections to the Governor, or family name will protect you while you traffic ice or coerce a bribe?

*The Spoils System adds a coercive element to government employment, and stifles free and open public debate on issues of importance. What do you do if you're a political appointee and there is an issue about your department. Do you support those who protest and rally? Or do you follow the administration's line, and try to stop the protest, despite the merits and your own opinion, because keeping your job depends on your loyalty? Do you show up for a legislative oversight session or worry about what might happen if your testimony casts a shadow on your boss?

When we vote on Monday, November 23, 2009, we can take the short view of what is going to get us "the most"--which candidate has promised us a job or has "helped" us out financially. Or we can take the long view, and ask which candidate is going to use merit and not the Spoils System when he gets elected?

For me, it's a matter of degree. I see that what we presently have with the Fitial Administration is a very strong Spoils System. I'm voting against that. I'm hoping that Heinz Hofschneider will be better. He's a politician. He has, no doubt, paid back some political debts at time. But he seems to be much less inured to the Spoils Systems and much more likely to listen and consider the merits of any proposal.

I hope he gets the message, if elected, that the voters really do want change, do want honest government, do deserve a government that fosters open access to information and decision-making, public debate, and the best qualified employees in essential jobs.

If he doesn't get elected, I hope everyone is ready to live with the decline in government services and the problems that the Spoils System will continue to bring.


KAP said...

It includes the Civil Service.

Years ago, the hiring authority was given the names of the three most-qualified candidates. That was changed to the top five. Obviously in some cases the first three weren't acceptable.

There have been attempts to reform the system by moving some excepted service positions into the civil service. However, the 'party' in power wanted to just magically give the current appointees protection. For some reason, the 'party' on the outside objected.

Anonymous said...

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Saipan Writer said...

I remember the "reform" attempt, Ken. I think it actually happened twice--both times efforts to find a way to insure the jobs of some who had been hired for political reasons.

The Civil Service does need to be reformed. It needs to be expanded to include many more jobs. But that protection should not be given to anyone unless they got their job and qualified through the civil service. We should be having civil service exams, and we should make sure that diplomas are from real institutions, and that on-the-job experience is valid. And we should take one of the top 3 candidates for every job--and as you point out, it shouldn't be a matter of whether the candidates are acceptable to the current administration.

I'm sure that many people I disagre with politically would get jobs this way because they are smart and competent. I'm also sure that many people I agree with politically would also get jobs. But the real benefit is that this type of system depoliticizes the work environment; it brings balance.

People in Saipan really do tend to have an insular attitude--one that is about living and working together harmoniously. It's a small place.

Saipan Writer said...

Thanks, Anon, for the feedback. It's good to know what is interesting to readers.

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