What Is Merit?

Published: Jan 1, 1981. Publicly Released: Jan 1, 1981.

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This article appeared in the GAO Review, Vol. 16, Issue 2, Spring 1981. The concept of merit has been the cornerstone of the federal personnel system since the Civil Service Act was passed, but each generation redefines merit to reflect contemporary values and concerns. Three aspects of the merit principle emerge as consistent concerns or tacit assumptions: open competition, selection on the basis of competence, and political neutrality. However, even when there is general agreement on the elements of a merit system, there is disagreement on the relative importance of these elements. Passage of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act marked the beginning of a new phase of the Federal merit system. Three major aspects of the Act stand out as implications for future evolution of the merit system: articulation of merit principles and prohibited personnel practices, delegation of personnel functions to individual agencies, and emphasis on equal employment opportunity. The first merit system principle listed in the Act states the goal of a work force from all segments of society. Another issue delt with in the Act is the explicit recognition of the right of Federal employees to organize through labor unions. It is not yet known how the new system will resolve the problem of participant abuse which takes the forms of manipulating the system to make appointments to nonpolitical positions on a partisan basis, or taking punitive actions against civil servants who belong to a different party or who disagree with Administration policy.

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