What Is Merit in a Governmental Context

What Is Merit In a Governmental Context

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What is Merit in a Governmental Context

Patronage, Efficiency, Equal Employment Opportunity, Affirmative Action, Executive Responsiveness, Collective Bargaining, and Professionalism In the development of American Public Administration:

An Essay For Human Resource Administration

Public personnel administration theory in the United States has undergone a number of shifts in orientation over time. Early in the Republic's history, for example, membership of a certain class had a lot to do with obtaining and retaining a federal job; today, in contrast, being a member of a certain ethnic group may be a factor in obtaining a federal job. To look at these two facts together might suggest that public personnel administration has not, in fact, changed very much, or it might suggest that it has changed tremendously. Both conclusions are correct as there is an underlying link between these situations, and that is the concept of "merit." The meaning of this term has undergone change that is not evolutionary but accretionary, with each new idea adding to a growing pool that guides American ideas about public personnel administration. One way of viewing the history of American public personnel management, then, is to examine the changing meaning of the term "merit."

This process is outlined in a number of sources. Among them is Frederick C. Mosher's Democracy and the Public Service (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). These changes are also outlined in Personnel Management in Government: Politics and Process (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1992) by Joel Shafritz, Norma M. Riccucci, David Rosenbloom, and Albert Hyde as well as in various publications of the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB). While this essay will focus upon the federal government, typically the "showcase" for governmental theories, this analysis would apply equally to state and local governments with some variations for local conditions.

The idea of "merit" itself is fairly simple. Government ought to employ the "best" people to work for it. It's important to note that this concept, a legacy of our English tradition, is not shared by all nations. In many parts of the world, such as Latin America, most people expect government workers to exploit their offices and to be among the "worst." Americans believe, then, government should employ and keep, in the British phrase, the "best and brightest."

If the idea of "merit" is fairly simple to understand, however, it's far more difficult to determine what is meant by "the best." That definition has changed over time and the idea of "merit" with it, but the process is even more complicated than this. While one definition became more accepted, the older definitions still retained adherents. Moreover, each new definition left legislative and statutory remains so that, in the end, the American today government employs personnel of varying definitions of merit. Therefore, it's necessary, to look at each definition, in turn, and to examine its legacy to the present.

During the time of Washington, government exercised relatively limited functions, and its personnel needs were, similarly, limited. For his government, Washington and his immediate successors drew from a relatively limited pool of college-educated, well-read individuals. In this era, "merit" might be accurately described as having the actual ability to do the job. It's not surprising, then, that successive administrations recycled the same individuals, "gentlemen," in a variety of jobs. This sounds like a very un-democratic, elitist kind of government, but this is an accurate reflection of some parts of our government today. The Constitutional requirements for the Senate and House are, at least, partly responsible for their status as "millionaires" clubs, so the Congress might be considered out continuation of the "gentlemanly" or "gentlewomanly" tradition.

With the spread of the franchise, and Jacksonian ideas of the "common man," a new concept of merit came to fore: party loyalty. While Jackson is somewhat erroneously credited with perfecting the "spoils system," both parties proved equally adept at finding governmental jobs for their loyal supporters. Patronage certainly did invite some forms of corruption, but it did, in fact, embody a conception of merit: a person loyal to the party was considered more "worthy" than a loyal opponent. There's logic to support this view: someone committed to a party's social platform, for example, would make a more enthusiastic departmental head than someone who doesn't believe in the program. Patronage employees within the federal government, today, fill the high levels of the departments as well as Schedule C positions.

Widespread abuses of the patronage, especially at the local level, led to a new concept of merit: public service as embodied in the Pendleton Act (1883). Mosher terms this government "by the good," a reflection of the widespread belief that patronage appointees were "the bad." The Pendleton act established the principle, borrowed from the British, of examinations, but specified them to be "practical in character." . The saying went "there's no Republican way to pave a road." An employed charged with the "public interest" is doing what serves the public, guided by administrative law, politically neutral. This idea of "public interest" continues to be embodied in various codes of ethics, the Civil Service Reform Act (1978), and decisions by the OPM, OSC, and MSPB.

The Pendleton Act said little about performance; it was largely assumed to follow from eliminating the abuses of the spoils system. The interest in making government perform better came from the field of scientific management, led by Frederick Taylor, and advanced by various governmental studies. The scientific management theorists looked to industry and business for inspiration. One result of this movement was the position classification system, which seeks to define jobs so they can be more effectively filled, and the examination system. Somewhat lost in the social movements and governmental affluence of the sixties, efficiency re-emerged in the governmental austerity climate of the eighties. Government, at all levels, tried and tries to do more with less, and the only way of doing this is "efficiently" obtaining and using personnel.

Up until the 1930s, these definitions of merit could generally exist simultaneously given the limited mission and size of government. The top level of government continued as something like Washington's government of gentlemen. Political appointees, filling the top level executive branches, continued the patronage tradition. The lower levels of government pursued their functions in a basically apolitical fashion and their managers pursued initiatives to become more efficient.

Roosevelt's New Deal and the Second World War did not change the definition of merit in government so much as they changed the idea of government itself. Roosevelt and the New Deal thinkers thought that the government could, and should, try to improve society, as well as delivering the goods and services traditionally associated with government such as national security. This new governmental vision stretched the already existing definitions of merit and showed some of their logical inconsistencies even as it created new definitions of merit. What, for example, was an "efficient" way to administer a retirement program or end poverty? How could the governmental simultaneously obtain (Humphrey-Hartley) no inflation, full employment, stable prices, and economic growth? Could federal employees administer a program in the "national interest" when such a program had debatable and arguably political goals?

Instead of a simple answer emerging, the idea of merit became more complex as merit obtained yet another new meaning: socially worthiness. Johnson's Great Society legislation that mandated equal opportunity evolved to include affirmative action and merit came to include "social merit," membership in a group historically disadvantaged. That this conflicted with previous concepts of merit is illustrated by the MSPB's dogged defense of the entry-level PACE test when the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) decided to abandon it. The MSPB pointed out the large body of statistical evidence supporting the relevance of PACE as a predictor of employee performance. In other words, PACE selected the "efficient." OPM, in contrast, found that only 7% minorities were hired under PACE versus 28% after its elimination. OPM wanted a work force that "mirrored America." Merit in terms of hiring and promotion, then, means balancing considerations of efficiency and performance with those of obtaining a "representative" federal work force.

Another challenge to the definition of merit was professionalism. A profession shares a number of attributes that distinguish it from simply another job. First, professionals generally share a specialized body of knowledge not readily accessible to the general public. Second, professionals have a sense of group identity, usually created by their education. Third, professionals have a fairly high degree of autonomy compared to other workers. Fourth, professionals have horizontal ties to those in their profession that may be almost as strong as the vertical ties within their own organization. Fifth, professionals have standards for work behavior created by self-governing bodies of fellow practitioners. Merit, to a professional, then, is at least partly a product of values created outside the employing agency or even the government that might conflict with the "public interest." As the federal government now employs 37% professionals, this is a serious consideration.

Another challenge in defining merit in this post-New Deal, activist government era is that of unionization. While federal unions significantly lack some of the powers of private sector unions, especially the ability to strike, they can collectively bargain and file grievances. The concept of merit, then, may have to take some consideration of what union bargains for employees and their relative strength.

A final definition of "merit" might include the idea of executive responsiveness. The "responsive" executive carries out the objectives of his mission, including "inspiring" his personnel to perform well. In many ways, the various ideas and methods of doing this (MBO, TQM, PPB etc.) echo the concerns with efficiency of Taylor and scientific management theorists; the difference is that compensation has become attached. This idea was first attempted with managers under the unsuccessful Merit Pay and Pay-for-Performance systems and tried more broadly with the China Lake demonstration project. The merit-worthy people under this idea are those who perform best, but differing levels of worthiness receive differing levels of reward.

"Merit," then, is a concept that has evolved through an accretionary process. Different definitions involve different portions of the government, and some individuals may, at any one time, have to consider several different and possibly conflicting definitions. Someone considering a top political position, for example, must consider patronage connections as well as their own ability to make subordinates perform. Personnelists, looking to find qualified persons for hiring or promotion must balance qualifications with considerations of race and gender. Managers charged with blue-collar workers will concern themselves with making those workers more efficiently, within the limits imposed by EEO constraints, while managers of white collar workers may have to deal with issues of professional standards.

America then has a government of people of "merit," but merit may mean many different factors that must be weighed and considered. In some situations, clearly, one definition of merit will have more importance than another. Over time, moreover, "merit" will continue to add definitions even as others fade.


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