(Not) the principles of the merit system

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Civil service is said to be based on a set of 9 merit system principles found in 5 US Code § 2301:

  1. Recruitment should come from qualified individuals from appropriate sources with the aim of securing a workforce from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of ability, knowledge and relative skills, after a fair and open competition that ensures that all receive equal opportunities.
  2. All employees and applicants for employment should receive fair and equitable treatment in all aspects of personnel management, regardless of political affiliation, race, color, religion, national origin, gender, marital status, age or disability status, and with due regard for their privacy and constitutional rights.
  3. Equal pay should be provided for work of equal value, with due regard to national and local rates paid by private sector employers, and appropriate incentives and recognition should be provided for excellence in performance.
  4. All employees must maintain high standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest.
  5. The federal workforce should be used effectively and efficiently.
  6. Employees should be retained on the basis of adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be fired who cannot or do not want to improve their performance to meet required standards.
  7. Employees should benefit from effective education and training in cases where such education and training would result in better organizational and individual performance.
  8. Employees must be protected from arbitrary actions, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes, and they are prohibited from using their official authority or influence to interfere with or affect the outcome of a party. election or a candidacy for an election.
  9. Employees must be protected from retaliation for lawful disclosure of information which they believe reasonably proves a violation of a law, rule or regulation, or mismanagement, serious waste of funds, an abuse of power or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.

Unfortunately, I think the merit system has evolved over time to be something that is not at all. The regulations, tools, practices and processes that are supposed to result in decisions based on merit actually interfere with merit.

With that in mind, here is a list of (non) merit principles that I think are more representative of how the hiring process actually works today.

  1. Recruitment must come from a pool of 300 million potential candidates for each position, with a selection based on who can lie the most by answering too long a list of mostly meaningless questions. The process should make it difficult for applicants to find jobs and for agencies to find qualified candidates. Bonus points for agencies that don’t bother to read the applications before passing them on to recruiters. Even more bonus points for agencies that won’t let hiring managers remove unqualified candidates from the list.
  2. Employees and applicants should be treated fairly and equitably, so treat them all badly. Make the hiring process so bad for everyone that candidates will also be fed up with the difficulty. Make sure the hiring process is an adequate test to determine how desperately a candidate desires a federal job. Bonus points for taking more than 6 months to bid. Additional special bonus points for taking a year or more.
  3. Equal pay should be provided for equal class levels, but that pay should not be based on what the labor market considers appropriate. Make sure that someone who has just graduated from school and could get $ 75,000 in the private sector is offered a GS-5 or GS-7 position.
  4. Rank the jobs into one of more than 400 job sets, so applicants won’t know what to look for.
  5. Demand many pages of documents rather than the one or two page resume that works for virtually every other employer in the country. Justify it by saying that we have to protect the system from (no) merit.
  6. Trust managers and their teams to run multi-million (or billion) dollar programs, but don’t trust them to identify and hire the talent they need for the program.
  7. Use the technology to make the process easier, but don’t make sure the people who use it are fully trained. Suppose technology is always right. Don’t let people interfere with what comes out of the computer because people are untrustworthy and computers can.
  8. After you have identified who might be the most qualified candidates, throw out all that work and apply the veterans preference.
  9. Create dozens of streamlined hiring authorities to bypass the process created with Principles 1-8.

I know this list sounds very cynical, but the truth is, the hiring process is on hold. Candidates hate it. Recruiters hate it. Most HR hates it.

We need to throw away most of the existing “merit” system and get back to basics. There is nothing wrong with the 9 principles of the merit system. They make sense and they would serve the American people well.

I believe that a radically simplified hiring process, based on the principles of the merit system, can be developed to make the process better for everyone. Some changes could be made through regulations, while others could require Congress to act.

We should empower hiring managers to identify and select the talent they need. We should change the veterans preference to a direct hiring authority for veterans that is associated with individual hiring goals for the agencies. And we should have HR help in the process, but not be the driver. Once released from the non-merit process, hiring managers should be held accountable for their decisions and results.

Some people tell me that this approach would not work. They believe hiring managers would hire their friends, relatives and others on the basis of relationships rather than merit. I believe this idea is based on a complete lack of confidence on the part of federal employees. If we can trust you to run an essential program, we can trust you to hire the right people. If you don’t, your performance rating should suffer. If you break the principles of the merit system and hire people on the basis of favoritism or politics or some other undeserving factor, you should be fired and banned from federal employment (and federal contracts).

Violating the principles of the merit system should have significant consequences, but current processes now punish everyone (managers, employees and candidates) for the potential misconduct of a few. The result is a corruption of the merit system and a bureaucratic process that gives the illusion of merit, but not the real thing. We can do better.

© 2021 Jeff Neal. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without the express written consent of Jeff Neal.


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