Merit, Management, and Neutral Competence: Lessons from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, FY 1988-FY 1997

By West, William F.; Durant, Robert F. | Public Administration Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Merit, Management, and Neutral Competence: Lessons from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, FY 1988-FY 1997


West, William F., Durant, Robert F., Public Administration Review


Merit principles have helped to define the character of bureaucracy in the United States for more than a century. Indeed, civil service protections of employee rights have affected American government in ways that extend far beyond the boundaries of public administration. Moreover, as current reformers offer prescriptions for reinventing public personnel systems at all levels of government today, a central matter of concern has become how best to protect merit principles in an era of fundamental change (Barzelay 1992; Kettl, Ingraham, Sanders, and Horner 1996; also see Condrey 1998).

Notwithstanding the importance of merit principles, scholars have practically ignored the linkages between institutions and outcomes of merit system protections. As a result, we have little understanding of how objectively and consistently merit is implemented. To be sure, scholars have described the negative impact of complex, confusing, and often contradictory merit procedures on public service recruitment, on managerial flexibility,(1) and on agency efficiency and effectiveness (for excellent summaries, see Rosen 1986; Wilson 1989; Ingraham and Rosenbloom 1991; Thompson 1993; Kettl, Ingraham, Sanders, and Horner 1996). Thoroughly documented as well are the obstacles to applying merit pay in the public sector (such as, Perry 1986; Perry, Petrakis, and Miller 1989; Kellough and Lu 1993). Nevertheless, our understanding of the performance of the "counterbureaucracies" (Rourke 1984; Gormley 1993) charged with protecting employee rights and of the efforts by public agencies to balance managerial flexibility with merit principles rests largely on insightful but impressionistic evidence (Ban and Redd 1990 and U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board 1998).

The passing of the twentieth anniversary of the U. S. Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978 provides an appropriate occasion for addressing this neglect as it applies to federal agencies. Partly to combat the partisan abuses of the merit system that occurred during the Nixon Administration (Nathan 1975), the CSRA reassigned the old Civil Service Commission's management and merit protection responsibilities to the Office of Personnel Management and the MSPB, respectively. The MSPB was created as an independent agency in order to ensure that the line between employee rights and the prerogatives of agency managers would be drawn objectively, consistently, and in a nonpartisan fashion (Ingraham and Ban 1984; Maranto and Schultz 1991; Ingraham and Rosenbloom 1992).

At a minimum, the protection of merit principles at any level of government can be influenced by two variables. The first is the extent of partisan responsiveness to political appointees by counterbureaucracies (like the MSPB) that are charged with holding other agencies accountable to merit principles. The second influence is the balance maintained within line agencies between managerial prerogatives and fair treatment of employees. Thus, any analysis of merit principles in the federal government profits from knowing two things: (1) if the implementation of merit principles by the MSPB has been a function of the political appointment process, and (2) if variation exists across agencies in the enforcement of merit.

After a brief description of the MSPB and what it does, our exploratory analysis examines the workloads, distributions, and decisions of the MSPB between fiscal year 1988 and fiscal year 1997. We rely on two types of data in examining these issues. The first are MSPB annual reports and statistical summaries compiled for fiscal year 1988 to fiscal year 1997. The second are telephone interviews conducted with high-level MSPB staff, and with private attorneys and officials from OPM and line agencies who have worked on merit issues.

We find that the MSPB is largely the objective counterbureaucracy that Congress intended it to be. Although presidential appointment of the Board's members yields predictable, partisan differences in philosophy, such longitudinal variation in its policy orientation occurs within a narrow range of discretion circumscribed by statutory law and norms of judicial professionalism. …

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