The State’s Merit System Protects More Than Public Employees

UPEA has tracked legislation over the past decade that would have impacted the civil service system for Utah’s public employees. Several factors are driving changes to the merit system, including increasing performance demands on state employees, prevailing perceptions that public employees have too many benefits, and less historical knowledge about how the merit system protects taxpayers.


The State’s Merit System Protects More Than Public EmployeesPublic employees should be protected by a merit system that objectively defines work expectations and employment outcomes. The objectivity of merit systems ensures that taxpayers’ shared assets are shielded from political influence and shifting ideologies. Furthermore, the merit system allows taxpayers to track employees’ competence and government habits that affect critical services to the state.

The Federal Government established a merit system for government workers in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 to, “…provide the people of the United States with a competent, honest, and productive workforce…and to improve the quality of public service, Federal personnel management should be implemented consistent with merit system principles.”

The Act based federal policy on nine principles for merit-based hiring, firing and pay practices. There is a difference between a merit system and merit principles. A merit system clearly defines policy and provides third-party oversight for enactment of policy based on merit principles. State employees, for example, have the Career Service Review Office to provide third-party oversight of agency rules. Merit principles, by contrast, allow employers to define hiring, firing and pay practices using broad guidelines but without third-party oversight.

Merit systems shield taxpayers’ services from the whims and currents of political influence. However, taxpayers are increasingly influenced by the perception that public employees are “hard to fire,” when it comes to disciplinary issues.

Former Utah Governor, Jon Huntsman Jr., said, “Anytime you look at tenure or you look at the merit system, people would describe it as calcified, without the flexibility other systems have.” He made these comments in 2008 following news that the Utah Department of Human Resource Management had visited Georgia to gather information about that state’s overhaul of the civil service system.

UPEA contends that the “hard to fire” perception of public employees is due, in part, to inadequate manager training on progressive discipline. A 2011 review of Utah’s Career Service System revealed that only 8% of state employee managers receive training on progressive discipline. In response to this review, UPEA approached Rep. Brad Daw to sponsor HB 251, Utah Personnel Management Act Amendments, during the 2012 Legislative Session. The bill passed requiring the Department of Human Resource Management director to develop supervisor and manager training.

Eliminating the merit system due to inadequate training would cost the state. UPEA has cited Georgia in its education campaigns to preserve Utah’s merit system. Georgia eliminated merit protections for employees hired after 1996. Surveys have shown that Georgia experiences high turnover and its employees fear reprisals when they raise concerns about their employer. Several states east of the Mississippi are considering overhauls to public employees’ civil service systems.