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The Merit System Principles: Keys to Managing the Federal Workforce New!

Merit System Principles (5 USC � 2301): Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What are the Merit System Principles?
  2. Why did Congress believe that the basic standards governing the management of the executive branch workforce should be included in statute?
  3. What specific role does the Merit Systems Protection Board play in ensuring adherence to the Merit System Principles?
  4. Can agency managers contact the Merit Systems Protection Board for advice on whether a particular planned action is consistent with the Merit System Principles or could be a prohibited personnel practice?
  5. What other agencies are responsible for enforcing the Merit System Principles?
  6. What is the first Merit System Principle?
  7. What is the second Merit System Principle?
  8. What is the third Merit System Principle?
  9. What is the fourth Merit System Principle?
  10. What is the fifth Merit System Principle?
  11. What is the sixth Merit System Principle?
  12. What is the seventh Merit System Principle?
  13. What is the eighth Merit System Principle?
  14. What is the ninth Merit System Principle?

1. What are the Merit System Principles?
The Merit System Principles are nine basic standards governing the management of the executive branch workforce.  The principles are part of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, and can be found at 5 U.S.C. § 2301(b).

2. Why did Congress believe that the basic standards governing the management of the executive branch workforce should be included in statute?
The Pendleton Act of 1883 replaced the political patronage system that had existed until that time with a merit-based system for filling most civil service positions.  The drafters of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 believed that this merit-based system had broken down over the ensuing century.  Thus, they codified the merit principles and created a new agency, the Merit Systems Protection Board, as the "vigorous protector of the merit system."

3. What specific role does the Merit Systems Protection Board play in ensuring adherence to the Merit System Principles?
The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) is empowered to hear and decide complaints for corrective or disciplinary action when an agency is alleged to have committed a prohibited personnel practice.  5 U.S.C. §§ 1214, 1215.  It is a prohibited personnel practice to (among other things) take an action in violation of the Merit System Principles.  5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(12).  In addition, Merit System Principles are mirrored in the list of prohibited personnel practices.  For example, Merit System Principle No. 9 provides that employees "should be protected against reprisal for the lawful disclosure" of waste, fraud, and abuse, while the list of prohibited personnel practices also prohibits reprisal for such disclosures.  5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8)

The MSPB also conducts studies of the civil service, and reports to the President and Congress on the extent to which the federal workforce is free of prohibited personnel practices.  5 U.S.C. § 1204(a)(3). A recently released report, The Merit System Principles: Guiding the Fair and Effective Management of the Federal Workforce (2016), summarizes how well Federal agencies are perceived to be supporting the MSPs; evaluates the extent and effectiveness of agency education on the MSPs; recommends steps to improve MSP education and adherence; and provides guidance and resources to facilitate greater understanding of the MSPs.

4. Can agency managers contact the Merit Systems Protection Board for advice on whether a particular planned action is consistent with the Merit System Principles or could be a Prohibited Personnel Practice?
The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) speaks primarily through its decisions and its studies.  The MSPB provides information about its decisions, studies, and procedures to groups through its outreach and education program.  The MSPB is not permitted to issue advisory opinions.  5 U.S.C. § 1204(h).

5. What other agencies are responsible for enforcing the Merit System Principles?
The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 requires the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to "hold[] managers and human resources officials accountable for efficient and effective human resources management in support of agency missions in accordance with Merit System Principles."  5 U.S.C. § 1103(c)(2)(F).  To carry out this responsibility OPM has established an Office of Merit System Accountability and Compliance.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigates allegations that an agency has committed a prohibited personnel practice, and may seek disciplinary or corrective action for a prohibited personnel practice before the MSPB.  5 U.S.C. §§ 1214, 1215.  It is a prohibited personnel practice to take a personnel action in violation of the Merit System Principles. 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(12).  As stated above, other Merit System Principles are mirrored in the list of prohibited personnel practices within OSC's jurisdiction. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission makes the final administrative decision on claims that an agency has committed unlawful employment discrimination.  5 C.F.R. Part 1614.  Such discrimination is inconsistent with the first and second Merit System Principles.