Merit by Any Other Name—Refraining the Civil Service First Principle


  • Colleen A. Woodard

    1. Colleen A. Woodard is the chief executive officer of Federal Technology Services Inc., which provides human resources services and consulting to federal organizations. She teaches in public administration graduate programs, speaks, publishes, and develops and conducts training on human resource management topics. Dr. Woodard holds a PhD in public administration from Virginia Tech. E-mail:
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Merit has traditionally served as the foundation of public human resources management (HRM) policy and practice. Today, the concept is more closely associated with compensation (merit pay) than with values that drive behavior in federal HRM. As the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense struggle to create new HRM systems that promote results-oriented government, the question arises, how does merit inform practice in these new systems? In this article, I identify the values that are influencing federal HRM decision making now and develop a model for merit-based HRM systems in a less regulated environment through a view from three lenses: the historical evolution of the merit concept in American government, how merit is treated in the law, and how merit has been applied in Title-5 exempt organizations. This discussion will help to create HRM policies and practices that are grounded in values that managers and employees can embrace and that translate into behaviors that promote both good relationships and results-oriented performance.