- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2003

In the old days, Washington administrators used the new year to persuade federal employees, who were mostly clerks at the time, to turn over a new leaf at work.
"New Year's is likewise a fitting occasion for the correction of any abuses or irregularities which may exist, and with this in view, I have to request that you will report the name of every clerk whose work does not come up to the standard of the Office," Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland wrote in a letter to department heads in 1853, exactly 150 years ago today.
A decade earlier, Congress began the quest to ensure that government workers earned their pay by requiring department heads to submit annual reports that provided, among other things, performance ratings of sorts for every employee.
James K. Polk, who became president in 1845, was a workaholic who demanded 100 percent from every employee. Biographer Allan Nevins wrote that Polk "labored at his desk day by day to the point of exhaustion, and unquestionably impaired his health and shortened his life by his heavy labors." Polk read every one of the performance reports of federal employees, directing his subordinates to remove the "negligent, idle, or incompetent."
In spite of the tough talk, few clerks were fired because, in the words of one department chief, "reporting even the most unworthy for removal is altogether the most disagreeable duty which has been required."
To be sure, before civil service was inaugurated in 1883, clerks often were booted when a new party came to power in Washington. Perhaps the easiest way to reward faithful service was through promotion, but the practice varied considerably from department to department. So did the criteria: past record, potential, good work habits and seniority often were referenced but rarely weighted.
In 1829, Amos Kendall, fourth auditor of the Treasury Department, made the first attempt to establish a written code of behavior for clerks. Kendall also would lead the Postal Service, which had been plagued for years by employee problems.
The object of much congressional scrutiny, both Treasury and the Postal Service needed a good dose of nose-to-the-grindstone medicine, as well as some old-fashioned morality, said Kendall.
Hence, the following rules of behavior or New Year's code for federal workers:
"Extravagant habits of any kind, leading to expenditures beyond our income, ought not to be tolerated in a public office.
"Every clerk will be in his room, ready to commence business, at 9 o'clock a.m., and will apply himself with diligence until 3 o'clock p.m.
"Every clerk will hold himself in readiness to discharge any duty which may be required of him in office hours or out.
"Newspapers or books must not be read in the office unless connected directly with the business in hand, nor must conversation be held with visitors or loungers except upon business which they may have with the office.
"Gambling, drunkenness, and irregular and immoral habits will subject any clerk to instant removal.
"The acceptance of any present or gratuity by any clerk from any person who has business with the office, or suffering such acceptance by any member of his family, will subject any clerk to instant removal."
"No person will be employed as a clerk in this office who is engaged in other business. Except the attention which the families of clerks require, it is expected that all their time, thoughts, and energies will be devoted to the public service."

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