Why Merit Matters

Governance isn’t a solo act and it won’t work well if we don’t trust the experts who are giving us advice. 

In the hurricane that swept through the federal bureaucracy following President Trump’s executive order creating loyalty tests for government officials, one important thread has received scant attention. The executive order seeks to undo the protections provided to federal employees for almost 140 years and to shift the balance of power to the White House. But it’s also undermined the very role of merit in the federal service.

The political winds have been fierce. But why does merit matter? Here are the top four reasons why it does. 

1. The alternative isn’t so good even for those who have the power to impose a political filter on people and their work. The days before the passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883, which created the merit system, were often miserable for top federal officials. They were in a position to appreciate the fact that “to the victor belong the spoils,” a phrase coined by New York Senator William L. Marcy after Andrew Jackson’s presidential victory. It’s always nice to be able to reward political friends with political jobs, and the president’s executive order would vastly expand the opportunity to do so.

But top members of new administrations often found this an awful experience. Lucius Q.C. Lamar, President Grover Cleveland’s Interior secretary, complained, “I eat my breakfast and dinner and supper always in the company of some two or three eager and hungry applicants for office; go to bed with their importunities in my ears.” In the early days of the merit system, President William Howard Taft nailed it: “every time I make an appointment, I create nine enemies and one ingrate.” 

The spoils system wasn’t all it was cracked up to be for those on the inside. It cost President James Garfield his life, when he was murdered by a supporter who had a vastly exaggerated view of his own contribution to Garfield’s election and expected a plum diplomatic post in Europe. 

2. There’s a critical role for expertise in government. One of the biggest problems with the bad old pre-merit-system days was that every new administration brought about a big churn in government workers. That made it much harder to get governments’ work done because so many positions were filled by short-timers who didn’t have the chance to master the job. At a time when the country was rapidly industrializing and big corporate trusts were dominating American society, the federal government was ill equipped to handle some of the biggest challenges facing the nation. 

If we fast-forward to 2021, there are mega-puzzles wherever we look. Do the vaccines in testing actually work? Are they safe? What issues are foremost in the minds of the governments we have to deal with around the world? Who is making sure that the nation’s nuclear weapons work and that they’re safely stored (and that we can clean up the radioactive debris left behind from the early days of manufacturing them)? How can we prevent planes from colliding on runways and in the air? How can we make sure fraud, waste, and abuse don’t creep into defense contracts? How do we make sure that people eligible for Social Security payments get them accurately and on time every month—and that we don’t send checks to cemeteries? The list goes on, in every nook and cranny of the federal government.

The reason we have a bureaucracy is that, as a society, we have decided that government ought to do a lot of important things. These things are often very difficult and complex. It’s always better to have experts who know what they’re doing when we try to do difficult and complex things. Because the federal government works with so many non-federal partners, it’s always better to make sure that the federal experts can match the non-federal ones on the other side of the table. It’s always hard, however, to find, hire, and keep the best experts. And it’s sure to become more difficult if their positions are tenuous and can evaporate with changes in the political winds.  

3. Dissenting views are handy. Experts who lean into those prevailing winds often raise inconvenient truths, but those truths are always truly invaluable. There’s an old Washington joke that there are two ways to embarrass a new political appointee. One is to do nothing that the appointee orders. The other is to do everything the appointee wants. The quickest road to disaster can be a speedy drive down a road littered with landmines that the driver doesn’t know exist.

After the Obamacare website crashed on the first day, a new team of experts made it serviceable in just a few months, which meant that it didn’t need to collapse to begin with. Listening to the experts who were raising warning flags could have prevented the administration’s crash-on-launch disaster, and it’s worth considering how different the Obamacare narrative might have been with a smooth takeoff.

The operation to take out Osama bin Laden was full of mega-risks, both for the troops involved and for our rocky relationship with Pakistan. In planning the operation, military commanders were careful not only to figure out how it might work—but also to put experts to work to suggest how it might fail. No commander in chief would ever want to launch a major operation without knowing what the risks are.

But to know what works—and what might not—requires deep expertise and, often, a great deal of professional courage. It’s not easy for anyone to risk putting their career on the line to raise an inconvenient truth. But if a policy professional could lose a job for raising troublesome issues, those issues are far less likely to be raised. The very pursuit of political loyalty could cost political officials their jobs in the next election. 

4. Trust matters. If the Food and Drug Administration says it’s safe to take the COVID-19 vaccine, will Americans trust their word? If NOAA’s Hurricane Center urges families to leave their homes and all their possessions behind because a hurricane threatens, will they believe the forecasters’ professional judgment? 

In many ways, the issue of trust is the single most important argument for the merit system. We won’t be eager to pay taxes if we don’t think the government will treat us fairly. We won’t play our part in government programs if we think that the program is being politically steered. And we won’t trust government if we come to believe that every part of it has a political slant. Governance isn’t a solo act and it won’t work well if we don’t trust the experts who are giving us advice. 

Trust in government is already at historic lows. If citizens believe that government’s work is always politically colored, trust can only shrink. And we’ll all be worse off. 

Now, to be sure, the merit system has a host of problems. No one really likes the system we have. In particular, there is the nagging argument that the government can’t rid itself of poor performers. The system is in desperate need of repair, and there’s no time to wait, as a recent National Academy of Public Administration report argued.

However, tossing the merit system aside because of its problems is sure to produce a far worse situation. We need to fix it. But trashing it could badly erode government’s ability to perform and, ultimately, the American democratic system. Even those arguing for the return to the spoils system could find themselves quickly regretting their choice.