Inspecting the Merit System’s “Pivotal Idea”: Does Competitive Examination Increase the Qualifications and Quality of the U.S. Federal Service?

Published date01 June 2020
Date01 June 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2020, Vol. 40(2) 202 –221
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X18794808
Inspecting the Merit System’s
“Pivotal Idea”: Does
Competitive Examination
Increase the Qualifications
and Quality of the U.S.
Federal Service?
Tim Johnson1 and Gregory B. Lewis2
According to its designers, the U.S. merit system centered on a “pivotal idea”: The
civil service would use “open, fair, honest, impartial, competitive examination” to
find the people “best fitted to discharge the duties of the position.” Officials would
announce job openings to the widest-possible applicant pool and assess that pool
on uniformly applied, job-relevant criteria. Over time, however, alternative hiring
mechanisms have increased in popularity as means to improve the speed or flexibility
the hiring process, with limited research on their impact on the federal service.
To understand their effects, we examine all federal, nondefense employees hired
between 1983 and 2013 to assess whether four alternative hiring procedures affect
the educational attainment (a proxy for qualifications) and career advancement (a
proxy for quality) of new hires. We find that employees hired through competitive
examinations possess more education upon entry than employees selected through
two of those alternative procedures; however, employees hired through all four
alternative procedures advance in their careers at least as rapidly as those selected
via competitive examinations.
human capital, merit, recruitment and selection, hiring, competitive examination,
personnel selection procedures, career advancement
1Willamette University, Salem, OR, USA
2Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Tim Johnson, Center for Governance and Public Policy Research, Atkinson Graduate School of
Management, Willamette University, 900 State Street, Salem, OR 97301, USA.
794808ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X18794808Review of Public Personnel AdministrationJohnson and Lewis
Johnson and Lewis 203
Competitive examination has figured among civil service hiring methods for millennia
(Chang, 1942; Têng, 1943) and is regarded as a cornerstone of merit systems
(Poocharoen & Brillantes, 2013). Indeed, when the Pendleton Act created the U.S.
merit system, the Senate Committee on Civil Service and Retrenchment argued that the
pivotal idea of the whole bill is that whenever, hereafter, a new appointment or a
promotion shall be made. . . such appointment or promotion shall be given to the man
who is best fitted to discharge the duties of the position, and that such fitness should be
ascertained by open, fair, honest, impartial, competitive examination. (quoted in U.S.
Merit Systems Protection Board [MSPB], 2015, p. 5)
Subsequent scholars have agreed, claiming that the replacement of patronage with com-
petitive examination ranks among the key events in the birth of the U.S. merit system
(Fish, 1904; Hoogenboom, 1961; Knott & Miller, 1987; Van Riper, 1958).
Yet, despite its primacy in discussions of merit reforms (e.g., Jing & Zhu, 2012;
Tsao & Worthley, 1995), competitive examination has faced criticism and some critics
claim that other methods might lead to better hires (Editors, 1924; Mosher, 1968;
Rourke, 1992). Within decades of the merit system’s origin, experts in the field of
public personnel management expressed ambivalence about competitive examination,
acknowledging that “the personnel administrator who puts too much or too little
emphasis on tests . . . will sooner or later find himself involved in difficulties” (Editors,
1924, p. 104). Consistent with this sentiment, politicians reacted to the growth of the
administrative state with efforts to secure responsiveness from public servants, thus
establishing political appointment as a democratically legitimate method of personnel
selection for some positions and avoiding the possibility of placing “too much” weight
on competitive examination (Mosher, 1968; Rourke, 1992). The pursuit of responsive-
ness, however, raised concerns about “too little” focus on competitive examination,
thus renewing civil service reformers’ worries about employee competence and high-
lighting the trade-offs inherent in prioritizing some values over others in the hiring
process (Kaufman, 2008).
Furthermore, competitive examination grew to be more than simply a civil service
test. Over the past several decades, it has included requirements for publicly announc-
ing positions, vetting all candidates in depth, and awarding veterans’ preference points.
Thus, not only did the tests themselves traditionally lack scientific validation, com-
petitive examination lengthened the hiring process and often led top scorers to take
other jobs before receiving government offers (Savas & Ginsburg, 1973). Partly for
these reasons, as well as for the broader aim of adopting less-rigid managerial prac-
tices in deregulation efforts (DiIulio, 1994), the federal service has increasingly turned
to hiring procedures that deviate from key features of competitive examination—viz.,
public announcement of positions, uniform assessment of all applications, and alloca-
tion of veterans’ preference points (U.S. MSPB, 2008a, 2015).
Research offers little insight, however, into how such deviations from competitive
examination affect the qualifications and quality of the federal service. Although
researchers have considered how specific hiring procedures—such as presidential
appointment (Gallo & Lewis, 2011; D. E. Lewis, 2007) and veterans’ preference

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