The Myth of Bureaucratic Neutrality: Institutionalized Inequity in Local Government Hiring

AuthorNicole Humphrey,Shannon Portillo,Domonic Bearfield
Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2020, Vol. 40(3) 516 –531
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X19828431
The Myth of Bureaucratic
Neutrality: Institutionalized
Inequity in Local Government
Shannon Portillo1, Domonic Bearfield2,
and Nicole Humphrey1
As a field, we often relate merit and neutrality to the technical skills needed to be the
“best” candidate for a job, but that was not necessarily what civil service reformers had
in mind. The civil service system was meant to replace widespread political patronage,
but the myth around the origins of the civil service system masked inequalities built
into early testing requirements and institutionalized racial inequities in hiring practices.
In this article, we argue the founding myth of bureaucratic neutrality was so powerful
that it continues to reverberate in our field. We trace the current reverberations of
the myth of neutrality through modern hiring practices and the contemporary legal
landscape. By doing this, we present a systematic review of this rationalized myth in
public employment, using an institutionalism framework. As the myth of bureaucratic
neutrality continues to permeate decision-making, policy creation, and implementation,
it will continue to institutionalize inequity within the field.
merit, politics and merit, diversity, discrimination, affirmative action and equal
employment opportunity
“The ability of any structure and its component members to gain control over a definition
of its boundaries and purposes can be regarded as a benchmark of social power.”
—Krislov (1974, pp. 72-73).
1The University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, USA
2Rutgers University–Newark, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Shannon Portillo, Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs & Administration, The University of
Kansas, 1445 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence, KS 66045, USA.
828431ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X19828431Review of Public Personnel AdministrationPortillo et al.
Portillo et al. 517
Defining Merit
In American public administration, the belief that hiring decisions are to be made
solely on the qualifications of the individual is a bedrock principle for scholars and
practitioners alike. This practice, often referred to as the merit system or merit-based
hiring, allows us to believe that at the end of the process, the most qualified candidate
will receive the job (Light, 2006). Many would agree that the pursuit of merit-based
hiring is a noble goal. However, historically, there have been problems with regard to
implementation because it is not clear what is meant when we say that we should hire
the best candidate. As a result, it can be incredibly difficult for public organizations to
implement this important principle. The definition of merit is complex and at times
interlocking (Anderson, 2013). It is used to convey virtue, deservingness, rationality,
and expertise. In terms of virtue, merit means that the individual is worthy of praise.
However, merit can also mean that one is deserving of help, or a proverbial leg up.
Finally, and most relevant to the neutrality school of human resources, is merit as abil-
ity or technical skill. In this article, we address these different conceptions of merit and
examine how the implementation of merit has allowed merit-based hiring to become a
rationalized myth in local government hiring. The field must examine merit to ensure
its efficacy and understand the potential harm the rationalized myth of merit may play
in public employment.
In principle, we would like to believe that the human resource application of merit
is exclusively, or at best largely, focused on ability. However, an argument can be
made that the other definitions remain in play, even when decisions are being made
based on ability. For instance, the idea men have to support a family, and women do
not, frames the decision to hire or promote as “who is more deserving” as opposed to
“who is more qualified.” Similarly, hiring someone from the same geographic region
or neighborhood, because they “fit” into the culture of an organization emphasizes
goals of harmony in culture rather than “who is most qualified” for a particular posi-
tion within the organization. Because the human resource application of merit often
expands beyond ability, it is essential the field recognizes these various applications
and seeks to understand their implications on the public sector.
This continues to be a vexing problem for modern local governments. In particular,
organizations that rely on testing, such as written tests for promotion from patrol offi-
cer to sergeant in police departments, to determine the acceptability and ranking of
candidates for positions and promotions must confront this problem to be an equitable
modern employer. This is a problem that has resulted in significant attention and litiga-
tion for local governments (Riccucci & Saldivar, 2012). For example, in January of
2010, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the New Jersey Civil
Service Commission and the State of New Jersey. The suit alleged that the written
examination used for promotion to the rank of police sergeant in a number of local
jurisdictions discriminated against African Americans and Hispanics.
According to the press release,
The United States’ complaint alleges that African-American and Hispanic candidates for
promotion to sergeant pass the examination at significantly lower rates than white

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