Mixed personnel systems can help uphold merit principles

Mixing employees under new, more flexible personnel systems with those still under the traditional civil service rules helps to maintain merit principles in government, two human resources directors said Thursday.

Merit principles included in Title 5 of the U.S. Code, which has governed civil servants for decades, are considered foundations of the bureaucracy. Such principles include open competition for jobs, equal pay for equal work, shields from improper political influence, whistleblower protections and veterans' preference.

Now Congress has granted about half of the federal workforce -- employees of the Homeland Security and Defense departments -- exemptions from Title 5. DHS and the Pentagon are building new personnel systems but Congress also has asked them -- and other agencies with such exemptions -- to maintain the merit principles.

Federal employee unions and some legislators have raised concerns over the possibility that cronyism could increase, in violation of the merit principles, under the new personnel systems.

At a symposium Thursday hosted by the Merit Systems Protection Board -- the quasi-judicial federal agency charged with upholding the merit principles -- two panelists said their agencies' merit principles have been resilient because excepted service employees work alongside those still under Title 5.

Thomas Hogan, deputy assistant secretary for human resources at the Veterans Affairs Department, oversees 80,000 employees who work under Title 38, which provides flexibilities for critical need medical positions. Every manager who oversees Title 38 employees also manages employees on the General Schedule.

"If you're not able to just build upon an embedded culture of merit factors," it would be difficult to maintain them in a nontraditional system, Hogan said.

Hogan said his agency does not have to adhere to one merit principle, though: veterans' preference. Congress decided it was more important for veterans to receive higher quality healthcare than it was for some of them to land jobs at the VA.

Marianne Myles, a director of human resources at the State Department, oversees employees under traditional civil services rules and those in the Foreign Service. She echoed Hogan in her explanation of how she continues to uphold merit principles.

"We have an embedded culture," Myles said. "We work together. So we have civil service support for the foreign service and vice versa."

DHS and the Pentagon are seeking to eventually place almost all of their employees under their new personnel systems, but both departments plan to implement the systems in pieces.

Defense's transition plan uses what the department calls "spirals." The first spiral includes almost 300,000 General Schedule employees and will be implemented in three segments.

The 11,000 employees around the country in Spiral 1.1 will move into the National Security Personnel System on April 30. Spirals 1.2 and 1.3 will follow, though the timing is unsure because of legal complications.

Defense officials plan to implement Spiral 2 in increments over several years. This stage includes the remainder of the civilian workforce. Spiral 3 will include Defense employees already working under different exemptions to the civil service rules.

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