Front Page Titles (by Subject) REFORM OF THE CIVIL SERVICE 1854 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I
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REFORM OF THE CIVIL SERVICE 1854 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977).
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REFORM OF THE CIVIL SERVICE
“Papers relating to the Re-organisation of the Civil Service,” Parliamentary Papers, 1854-55, XX, 92-8. Originally headed: “Mr. John Stuart Mill, / May 22, 1854.” Identified in JSM’s bibliography as “A paper on the proposed Reform of the Civil Service, included among those printed in a Collection of papers thereupon, laid before Parliament in the Session of 1854/5.” (MacMinn, 88.) In the Somerville College Library there is a copy of the pamphlet reprint of the paper (Paper on the Re-organisation of the Civil Service. By Mr. John Stuart Mill, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1855; paged 1-9).
For comment on the circumstances surrounding Mill’s writing of the paper, see the Textual Introduction, lxxviii above.
Reform of the Civil Service
the proposal to select candidates for the Civil Service of Government by a competitive examination[*] appears to me to be one of those great public improvements the adoption of which would form an era in history. The effects which it is calculated to produce in raising the character both of the public administration and of the people can scarcely be over-estimated.
It has equal claims to support from the disinterested and impartial among conservatives and among reformers. For its adoption would be the best vindication which could be made of existing political institutions, by showing that the classes who under the present constitution have the greatest influence in the government, do not desire any greater share of the profits derivable from it than their merits entitle them to, but are willing to take the chances of competition with ability in all ranks: while the plan offers to liberals, so far as the plan extends, the realization of the principal object which any honest reformer desires to effect by political changes, namely, that the administration of public affairs should be in the most competent hands, which, as regards the permanent part of the administrative body, would be ensured by the proposed plan, so far as it is possible for any human contrivance to secure it.
When we add to this consideration the extraordinary stimulus which would be given to mental cultivation in its most important branches, not solely by the hope of prizes to be obtained by means of it, but by the effect of the national recognition of it as the exclusive title to participation in the conduct of so large and conspicuous a portion of the national affairs, and when we further think of the great and salutary moral revolution, descending to the minds of almost the lowest classes, which would follow the knowledge that Government (to people in general the most trusted exponent of the ways of the world) would henceforth bestow its gifts according to merit, and not to favour; it is difficult to express in any language which would not appear exaggerated, the benefits which, as it appears to me, would ultimately be the consequences of the successful execution of the scheme.
The objections usually heard, or seen in print, against this great improvement, are either grounded on imperfect apprehension, or, when examined, are found to bear involuntary testimony to the existing need of such a change.
For example, it has been called, in Parliament and elsewhere, a scheme for taking patronage from the Crown and its officers, and giving it to a body of examiners.[*] This objection ignores the whole essence of the plan. As at present conducted, the bestowal of appointments is patronage. But the conferring of certificates of eligibility by the Board of Examiners would not be patronage, but a judicial act. The examiners for honours at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, or London, have not the patronage of honours; nor has the Lord Chancellor, when he decrees an estate to one person instead of another, the patronage of the estate. If it be meant that the examiners would not be capable and impartial, the objection is intelligible. But capable and impartial examiners are found for university purposes, and for the purposes of the educational department of the Privy Council; and they will be found for the present purpose, supposing that there is a sincere desire to find them. The idea that an examination test is likely to be merely nominal, is grounded on the experience of a different kind of examination from that proposed. It is derived from examinations without competition. When the only object is to ascertain whether the candidate possesses a certain minimum of acquirement, it is usually thought that this minimum should be placed low enough to give a chance to all; and however low it may be placed, good nature interferes to prevent it from being rigidly enforced against any but absolute dunces, whilst the other candidates are willing to encourage and applaud this relaxation of duty, and even to connive at frauds on the part of the incompetent. The feelings of all concerned are very different, when the question to be resolved is, who among the candidates that present themselves are the most qualified. Indulgence to one, is then injustice to others, and wears a very different aspect to the conscience from that, falsely thought more venial, laxity, by which the public alone is damaged. In this case, too, the interests and feelings of the other competitors are enlisted in favour of preventing and detecting fraud. With a honest choice of examiners, a competitive examination is as unlikely to fail, as a mere test is unlikely to succeed.
Another objection is, that if appointments are given to talent, the Public Offices will be filled with low people, without the breeding or the feelings of gentlemen. If, as this objection supposes, the sons of gentlemen cannot be expected to have as much ability and instruction as the sons of low people, it would make a strong case for social changes of a more extensive character. If the sons of gentlemen would not, even under the stimulus of competition, maintain themselves on an equality of intellect and attainments with youths of a lower rank, how much more below the mark must they be with their present monopoly; and to how much greater an extent than the friends of the measure allege, must the efficiency of the Public Service be at present sacrificed to their incompetency. And more: if, with advantages and opportunities so vastly superior, the youth of the higher classes have not honour enough, or energy enough, or public spirit enough, to make themselves as well qualified as others for the station which they desire to maintain, they are not fit for that station, and cannot too soon step out of it and give place to better people. I have not this unfavourable opinion of them: I believe that they will fairly earn their full share of every kind of distinction, when they are no longer able to obtain it unearned.
Another objection is, that no examination can test more than a part of the qualities required in a Public Servant; that it is a test of book knowledge, but neither of moral qualities, nor of those which form the foundation of ability in the practical conduct of life. And it is added, that the proposed examination would have excluded Wellington, Nelson, and many more of those who have most distinguished themselves in public functions.
With regard to practical talents, it may be very true that Nelson or Wellington could not have passed a literary examination. But if such an examination had been required in their day for entering the army or navy, can any one suppose that young men of their energy and capacity would not have qualified themselves for it; or that even they would have derived no benefit from it? The assumption, besides, is gratuitous, that the examination would be solely literary. It is proposed that it should be also scientific; and this should include the practical applications of science: and there would be great propriety in allowing persons to offer themselves for a competitive examination in any kind of knowledge which can be useful in any department whatever of the Public Service, such number of marks being assigned to each of these special acquirements, compared with the more general ones, as in the judgment of the Examining Board might correspond to their value. Above all, however, it ought to be remembered, that the worth of the examination is as a test of powers and habits of mind, still more than of acquirements; for talent and application will be sure to acquire the positive knowledge found necessary for their profession, but acquirements may be little more than a dead weight if there is not ability to turn them to use.
With regard to moral qualities, undoubtedly no examination can directly test them; but indirectly it must do so in no inconsiderable degree; for it is idleness, and not application, which is “the mother of vice;” and a well cultivated intellect will seldom be found unaccompanied by prudence, temperance, and justice, and generally by the virtues which are of importance in our intercourse with others. Whatever means of judging of the moral character of the applicants may be adopted, I will venture to express a hope that they may be of a different kind from those suggested by Mr. Jowett;[*] who would demand from every candidate for examination a certificate of baptism [Jowett, p. 24; pp. 654-5 below], thus excluding even the Christian sects which do not practise that rite, and would require, among other references, one to a clergyman or a dissenting minister [Jowett, p. 25; p. 655 below]; which, as they would of course give their recommendations only to those whose religious character they approved of, would amount to the severest penalty for non-attendance on some church or minister of religion, and would be in fact a religious test, excluding many highly qualified candidates. If by requiring a statement of the “school or college” where the young man has been educated [Jowett, p. 24; p. 655 below], it be meant that he must have been educated at a school or college, this is another unjust and injudicious limitation (by which, among others, the writer of this letter would have been excluded, having never been at either school or college). Above all, I would point out the terrible principle brought in by the truly inquisitor-like proceeding recommended by Mr. Jowett, of “confidential” inquiries, and rejection “absolute and without reasons.” [Jowett, p. 25; p. 655 below.] A youth who has passed all the previous years of his life in fitting himself for examination, is, according to Mr. Jowett’s notions of justice, to find himself, in consequence of a secret accusation, rejected, he knows not why, and without the possibility of clearing his character from the unknown imputation! If any young man is rejected on moral grounds, it ought, I conceive, to be on a definite charge, which he has had a full opportunity of answering.[†] I would also suggest reconsideration of the (as it appears to me) very questionable principle of excluding youths otherwise qualified, by requiring a medical examination.[‡] It would be easy to find other means of preventing a public appointment from being made a means of obtaining a provision in the form of a pension without having rendered service sufficient to earn it.
In the preceding observations I have assumed, as requiring no proof, that the object proposed is in itself desirable; that it would be a public benefit if the Public Service, or all that part of it the duties of which are of an intellectual character, were composed of the most intelligent and instructed persons who could be attracted to it. If there be any who maintain a contrary doctrine, and say that the world is not made only for persons of ability, and that mediocrity also ought to have a share in it; I answer, certainly, but not in managing the affairs of the State. Mediocrity should betake itself to those things in which few besides itself will be imperilled by its deficiences,—to mechanical labour, or the mechanical superintendence of labour, occupations as necessary as any others, and which no person of sense considers disparaging. There will be, assuredly, ample space for the mediocrities, in employments which require only mediocrity, when all who are beyond mediocrity have found the employment in which their talents can be of most use.
I do not overlook the fact that the great majority, numerically speaking, of public employments, can be adequately filled by a very moderate amount of ability and knowledge; and I assume, that a proper distinction is made between these and the others. It would be absurd to subject a tide-waiter, a letter-carrier, or a simple copyist, to the same test as the confidential adviser of a Secretary of State; nor would the former situation be an object to any one capable of competing for the latter. The competition for the inferior posts must be practically limited to acquirements which are attainable by the persons who seek such employments; but it is by no means a consequence that it should be confined to such things as have a direct connexion with their duties. The classes which supply these branches of the Public Service are among those on whom it is most important to inculcate the lesson, that mental cultivation is desirable on its own account, and not solely as a means of livelihood or worldly advancement; that whatever tends to enlarge or elevate their minds, adds to their worth as human beings, and that the Government considers the most valuable human being as the worthiest to be a Public Servant, and is guided by that consideration in its choice, even when it does not require his particular attainments or accomplishments for its own use. A man may not be a much better postman for being able to draw, or being acquainted with natural history; but he who in that rank possesses these acquirements, has given evidence of qualities which it is important for the general cultivation of the mass that the State should take every fair opportunity of stamping with its approbation.
[[*] ]See “Report on the Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service, together with a letter from the Rev. B. Jowett,” Parliamentary Papers, 1854, XXVII, 1-31. The “Report” is by Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan.
[[*] ]See the comment by Lord Monteagle in Parliamentary Debates, 3rd ser., Vol. 131, col. 650 (13 March, 1854).
[[*] ]See Jowett’s letter in “Report on the Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service,” pp. 24-31, reprinted below as Appendix C.
[[†] ]For the editorial footnote that appeared at this point, see App. C below, pp. 655-6.
[[‡] ]See Jowett’s letter, p. 25; App. C, p. 655.