Merit System principles were incorporated in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 with a desire to create competent, political, and efficient public administration. Actually, the merit system is the consequence of reform movements that were carried out forcefully in the USA in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The motive of this system was twofold– to ensure political neutrality of the civil servants through the removal of spoil politics and partisan political pressures and to ensure processes of recruitment, promotion, and retention were carried on with principles of merit.
In fact, CSRA of 1978 stated that it is the policy of the United States “to provide the people of the United States with a competent, honest, and productive workforce…and to improve the quality of public service, Federal personnel management should be implemented consistent with merit system principles.” The merit principle strives to make the competence of employees the basic criterion influencing their movement into, within, and out of public organizations.
They call to supersede spoils, favoritism, patronage, and other biased or prejudiced criteria in the recruitment, selection, promotion, retention, and compensation of the employees. In other words, employees should be recruited from all segments of society; be selected on the basis of merit; be treated equitably and fairly; be given equal pay for equal work; be managed efficiently and effectively; be retained on performance; be protected “from political influence and reprisals in response to legitimate ‘whistle-blowing’; and maintain high standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest.”
The merit system has become the basis for all governmental personnel processes in the United States. At the federal level, personnel processes are implemented by Merit System Board Protection and US office of Personnel Management in accordance with the merit principles, whereas at the state or local level, central personnel agency or independent civil service commission is vested with this responsibility. But this merit system has come under severe attack from unions as they are blamed for being based on a unilateral decision-making process.
Though the personnel directors are appointed by the chief executive, and they may be nonpartisan, yet unions perceive them as management-oriented. Jerry Wurf, the late AFSCME leader, stated that “it is the bosses’ system- one that they have substituted (voluntary or otherwise) for the old political patronage selection process.” In today’s context, only a few civil service commissions remain, which were created with the intention to provide job security and protection against patronage.
The main reason being the chief executive rather than commission is directly reported by the head of the state or local personnel system. Though the purpose of this system is the integration of the personnel function with the executive, yet this arrangement is seen as a threat as mayors or governors may try to politicize the system. Therefore, unions are perturbed with unilateralism, favoritism, and other disgusting aspects of this arrangement.
The federal merit system’s credibility has also been gravely abraded due to accusations of political patronage in policies of federal recruitment and promotion. The Nixon, as well as the Reagan administration, had been charged with the abuse of merit principles. In the Reagan era, the classified positions were converted to appointive status, written exams were canceled to favor direct appointments, and political bosses debased the bureaucrats in their careers. Under the Bush Administration, Mona Goodling, the Department of Justice’s White House Liason and Senior Counsel to Attorney General, in her both verbal and written statement, acknowledged in front of the United States House of Representatives Committee that she assessed the candidates’ career positions on the basis of the political considerations. Such political considerations by Goodling were damaging as less-qualified candidates were favored over high qualified candidates.
Bush Administration has also been blamed for its relentless efforts to politicize federal pay. It is imposing a “pay for performance” system in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security and has also obtained authority to imply on the rest of the government, which in itself is a critical implication to the merit system principles. At the state level also, the merit system has been condemned, and various allegations have been levied, such as extreme and restricting rules and centralized control systems, slow recruitment procedures that restraints the hiring of qualified and skilled people, and a rigid classification system. It has been argued that it prevents good management, frustrates and discourages able employees, and hinders productivity.
The purpose of the merit system cannot be undermined as the very purpose for which it was designed still form the basis of the employment in the government personnel processes. Now, as the demographics of America are changing fast, the need of the hour is to provide laws and procedures that would increase the motivation of the employees for their overall growth and development as well as the growth and development of the organization as a whole.