Issue Briefs

Following is an article in a recent MSPB publication examining the impact of recent civil service initiatives from the Trump administration on the merit principles underlying the federal workplace.

The merit system principles (MSPs) were codified by the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978 in 5 U.S.C. § 2301(b). They serve as the Federal Government’s guidelines for how the workforce should be managed. Earlier this year the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued directive M-17-22, Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce, calling on agencies to formulate plans “aim[ed at] mak[ing the] government lean, accountable, and more efficient.” Although M-17-22 does not expressly reference the MSPs, the directive in essence asks agencies to recommit to several of the key values that underlie them.

Take, for example, the sections “Restructure and Merge Activities” and “Improve Organizational Efficiency and Effectiveness.” Here, OMB directs agencies to ensure that their organizational structures are aligned with their core missions and strategic plans; reduce duplication of activities or functions across different parts of their organizations; eliminate redundant levels of management or administrative support; and get rid of unnecessary steps that do not add value. The fifth MSP states that the Federal workforce “should be used efficiently and effectively.” As MSPB explained in our 2013 report Managing Public Employees in the Public Interest, how well an agency is meeting the simple command of MSP 5 can be gauged by examining things like the extent to which it eliminates unnecessary functions and positions, makes good use of employees’ skills and talents, and focuses employee attention and efforts on what is most important. The parallels between M-17-22 and MSP 5 are clear.

To take another example, the section “Workforce Management: Improve Performance, Increase Accountability, and Reduce Costs” directs agencies to ensure that managers have the tools and support they need to manage employee performance effectively; recognize high performers; help employees who are not meeting performance expectations; and remove poor performers if necessary. MSP 3 states that “appropriate incentives and recognition should be provided for excellence in performance.” MSP 6 says that employees “should be retained on the basis of the adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards.” Here too, the mandates of M-17-22 parallel the MSPs, and MSPB has explored how agencies can better carry out these actions. For example, our 2012 report Federal Employee Engagement: The Motivating Potential of Job Characteristics and Rewards discusses how to administer rewards to improve employee motivation in a workforce that tends to see weak relationships between performance and the rewards they receive. Furthermore, our 2015 report What is Due Process in Federal Civil Service Employment? provides a discussion of common misperceptions related to the rules around adverse actions.

In Managing Public Employees in the Public Interest, we observed that the MSPs encompass three themes: (1) Fairness in the treatment of Federal employees and applicants for Federal jobs; (2) Stewardship, the responsible management of Federal personnel and resources with the public interest in mind; and (3) Protection of employees from arbitrary or improper influences or actions. Our report found that many Federal employees perceive that their agencies fall short in the area of stewardship. M-17-22 overall implies as much and calls on agencies to do better. As noted in the directive, MSPB has a number of resources available on our website to help agencies do this, including The Merit System Principles: Keys to Managing the Federal Workforce, a booklet designed to help supervisors and managers understand the values and requirements of Federal merit systems.

Some claim that the civil service laws are outdated relics that get in the way of effectively managing the Federal workforce. Clearly this is not the case as far as the MSPs are concerned. Decades after the enactment of the CSRA, the legislative vision underlying the MSPs still matters.