The Merit System and Integrity in the Public Service

W McCourt


How can governments ensure that public appointments are fair, transparent and challengeable? This paper presented at the Conference on Public Integrity and Anticorruption in the Public Service explores issues of merit and integrity in the public service. To advance merit, governments should establish a sound institutional framework and upgrade appointment methods.

Controversies surrounding the president of the World Bank and the Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show what can happen when public organisations’ appointment decisions are challenged. In an era of media scrutiny, the public expects these appointments to be based on merit. This means appointing the best person for any given job. The necessity of providing the best possible service overrides the desirability of improving the position of disadvantaged groups.

The merit principle applies to jobs at every level. It implies that the selection process is open to all, systematic, transparent and challengeable. However, current practice often runs counter to this ideal:

  • Merit is frequently focused on the point of entry, posts are restricted to certain candidates, the process is arbitrary, secretive and unchallengeable. The appointee is merely able to do the job, rather than the best candidate.
  • Corruption is a blatant abuse of merit. In public appointments, it may take the form of political patronage, nepotism, discrimination and faulty definitions of merit.
  • Exceptions to the merit principle include elected officials, political and direct appointments, affirmative selection, internal appointments, transfers and secondments. While it may be reasonable for merit to be overridden in such cases, there must be a strong justification.

There are a number of ways in which governments can advance merit in the public service:

  • Institutional arrangements to support appointments on merit include a central agency, legal provisions, separation of political and administrative spheres, and an internal code of conduct.
  • A good appointment procedure has these elements: a job analysis, advertisement, standard application form, scoring scheme, shortlisting procedure, final selection procedure, appointment based on scoring, and notification of results. Documentation should be retained in case decisions are challenged.
  • An assessment centre procedure remains the gold standard of public selection. This comprises a number of selection methods including an interview and written and oral activities.
  • Key steps for government include: publicly declaring adherence to merit principles, specifying exceptions, auditing existing practice, establishing institutional arrangements and good practice selection procedures.
  • While only governments can affect institutional arrangements, every public servant can make a contribution. Readers are invited to think of one action they can take to improve the quality of their agencies’ staffing decisions.


McCourt, W., 2007b, 'The Merit System and Integrity in the Public Service', Paper presented at Conference on Public Integrity and Anticorruption in the Public Service, 29-30 May, Bucharest