Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Reply to Kettl: Today’s merit system is obsolete

SandersRon Sanders replies to Don Kettl’s commentary, The merit principle in crisis: With all due respect to my good friend and colleague, Don Kettl, I take exception to his initial premise. I do not believe that the merit principle(s) which ground the American civil service are under attack. Those principles—which include such axioms as appointment based on qualifications and competence, non-discrimination in all aspects of employment, and due process for termination—are enduring and hard to dispute. Indeed, I doubt that even the most vocal bureaucrat basher would argue that government employment should be based on political patronage or family ties, or that those that hire civil servants should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race or sex or age.

Thus, I would contend that it is not the lofty merit principles that are under attack. Rather, I believe that it is the way those principles have been operationalized—that is, today’s merit system—that is under attack…and in my humble opinion, deservedly so. That system, with its roots planted firmly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has become far too rule-bound and rigid, ossified and obsolete, with layer upon layer of procedure and process supplanting good judgment.

In that regard, much as it makes some nervous, merit has always been a matter of judgment—whether it is judging an applicant’s qualifications for appointment, an employee’s performance on the job, or an executive’s accountability for organizational outcomes. However, in the decades since the passage of the Pendleton Act, judgment has largely been wrung out of the system, with a byzantine and formulaic hiring process, pay based almost exclusively on tenure, and the expectation of entitlement to lifetime employment the result.

It is these features that are under attack, and they have little to do with merit. Take the weakening of executive protections at the VA. Those executives that lied about patient wait times should be fired, and it shouldn’t take months and a platoon of lawyers to do so. That said, the other extreme—the prospect of senior career executives employed at will—is no better. Or take the size of government, and the default to hiring freezes and blind attrition to reduce its ranks; few would argue that that’s an effective way to do so, but the alternative—seniority-based, ‘last in, first out’ reductions—end up traumatizing the workforce and mortgaging the next generation of civil servants.

However, while Professor Kettl and I may disagree on what’s under attack, we both agree that sweeping reforms to the merit system are at least part of the answer. For example, last year my colleagues at the Partnership for Public Service and I offered a comprehensive civil service reform blueprint, but the academic community has been relatively reticent on that subject. It needs to step up to the challenge in at least two respects.

First, it needs to offer viable alternatives to the current civil service system. Surely there is some middle ground between today’s Supreme Court-like termination process and VA-style summary discharge, or between today’s automatic pay increases and those pay-for-performance experiments that elicit such vociferous opposition from some quarters. Yet few alternatives have been forthcoming, the academic community content to critique rather than construct.

Second, my academic colleagues need to quit talking to themselves and start talking to the public. I offer Professor Kettl as a role model in this regard—Don has tried to make the case against bureaucrat bashing on the one hand, and civil service reform on the other, to the public at large—but there are not many of us like him. But a public better educated on the principles of merit, as well as the problematic way it’s been operationalized, could support real reforms…and perhaps temper the extremes as well.

I know that sounds Pollyannaish, but after all, it was the political engagement of a citizen-based, grass-roots organization called the Civil Service League that ultimately led to the passage of the storied Pendleton Act over 130 years ago, and just maybe we can look back at it…to the future.

Ronald Sanders is Vice President of Booz Allen Hamilton and its first Fellow. Joining the firm as its human capital consulting lead after 37 years in government, he previously served as the Intelligence Community’s Chief Human Capital Officer; OPM Associate Director; IRS Chief HR Officer; and DOD Civilian Personnel Director. A NAPA Fellow, he received his DPA from George Washington University and has served on the faculties of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, GWU, and the Brookings Institution.

Written by Governance

September 21, 2015 at 6:00 am

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