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The Rise and Fall of Radical Civil Service Reform in the U.S. States


  • Robert J. McGrath is assistant professor of government and politics in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University. His research focuses on how the structure and arrangement of democratic institutions affects the policy making process. He is particularly interested in issues related to interbranch bargaining between executives and legislatures. E-mail:


Initiated by a 1996 Georgia statute, “radical” civil service reform quickly swept the United States. This article explains the wax and eventual wane of state efforts to increase the number of at-will employees at the expense of the population of fully protected merit system employees. Using an event history approach to explain this policy diffusion with state-level variables, the author shows that electoral competition and gubernatorial powers are the most significant determinants of this kind of policy diffusion. Whereas previous literature concluded that these reforms ceased spreading because the new programs were failing to create the promised governmental efficiency, this article argues that the institutional conditions for these human resource management policies have been less propitious in recent years. The article signifies an important contribution in that it brings civil service reform back into the scope of policy diffusion literature and identifies political insights into a perpetually important question.