(Not) the Merit System Principles

The author says the merit system has evolved into something that is not a merit system at all.

The Civil Service is supposed to be based upon a set of 9 Merit System Principles found in 5 U.S. Code § 2301:

  1. Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a work force from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge, and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.
  2. All employees and applicants for employment should receive fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of personnel management without regard to political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition, and with proper regard for their privacy and constitutional rights.
  3. Equal pay should be provided for work of equal value, with appropriate consideration of both national and local rates paid by employers in the private sector, and appropriate incentives and recognition should be provided for excellence in performance.
  4. All employees should maintain high standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest.
  5. The Federal work force should be used efficiently and effectively.
  6. Employees should be retained on the basis of the adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards.
  7. Employees should be provided effective education and training in cases in which such education and training would result in better organizational and individual performance.
  8. Employees should be protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes, and prohibited from using their official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for election.
  9. Employees should be protected against reprisal for the lawful disclosure of information which the employees reasonably believe evidences a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.

Sadly, I think the merit system has evolved over time into something that is not a merit system at all. The regulations, tools, practices and processes that are supposed to result in merit-based decisions actually get in the way of merit.

With that in mind, here is a list of (Not) Merit Principles that I think are more representative of how today’s hiring process actually works.

  1. Recruitment should be from a pool of 300 million potential applicants for every job, with selection based on who can lie the most when responding to an overly long list of mostly meaningless questions. The process should make it difficult for applicants to find jobs and for agencies to find qualified applicants. Bonus points for agencies that do not bother to read the applications before they forward them to hiring managers. Even more bonus points for agencies that will not let those hiring managers remove unqualified applicants from the list.
  2. Employees and applicants should receive fair and equitable treatment, so treat them all badly. Make the hiring process so bad for everyone that applicants will be equally fed up with how difficult it is. Make certain the hiring process is an adequate test of how desperately an applicant wants a federal job. Bonus points for taking more than 6 months to make an offer. Extra special bonus points for taking a year or more.
  3. Equal pay should be provided for equal grade levels, but that pay should not be based on what the labor market says is appropriate. Make certain someone just out of school who could get $75K in the private sector is offered a GS-5 or GS-7 position.
  4. Classify jobs into one of 400 or so job series, so applicants will not know what to look for.
  5. Require many pages of documents rather than the 1 or 2-page resume that works for virtually every other employer in the country. Justify it by saying we have to protect the (non)merit system.
  6. Trust managers and their teams to run multi-million (or billion) dollar programs, but do not trust them to identify and hire the talent they need for the program.
  7. Use technology to facilitate the process, but do not ensure that the people who use it are fully trained. Assume that the technology is always right. Do not let people interfere with what spews out of the computer, because people cannot be trusted and computers can.
  8. After identifying who might be the best qualified applicants, throw out all of that work and apply veteran preference.
  9. Create dozens of simplified hiring authorities to get around the process that was created with principles 1 – 8.

I know this list sounds very cynical, but the truth is that the hiring process is broken. Applicants hate it. Hiring managers hate it. Most HR folks hate it.

We need to throw out most of the existing “merit” system and return to the basics. There is nothing wrong with the 9 Merit System Principles. They make sense and they would serve the American people well.

I believe a radically simplified hiring process, based on the Merit System Principles, can be developed to make the process better for everyone. Some changes could be made through regulations, while others may require Congress to act.

We should give hiring managers the authority to identify and select the talent they need. We should change veteran preference into a direct-hire authority for veterans that is coupled with individual hiring objectives for agencies. And we should have HR help with the process, but not be the driver. Once freed of the non-merit process, hiring managers should be held accountable for their decisions and results.

Some people tell me this approach would not work. They believe hiring managers would hire their friends, relatives and others based on relationships rather than merit. I believe that idea is based on a complete lack of trust of federal employees. If we can trust you to run a critical program, we can trust you to hire the right people for it. If you do not, your performance rating should suffer. If you violate the Merit System Principles and hire people based on favoritism or politics or some other non-merit factor, you should be fired and banned from federal employment (and federal contracting).

There should be significant consequences for violating Merit System Principles, but the current processes punish everyone (managers, employees and applicants) now for the potential misconduct of a few. The result is a corruption of the merit system and a bureaucratic process that provides the illusion of merit, but not the real thing. We can do better.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit ChiefHRO.com to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

About the Author

Jeff Neal is author of the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.