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

Shannon Portillo, Domonic Bearfield, Nicole Humphrey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)516-531
Number of pages16
JournalReview of Public Personnel Administration
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Public Administration
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


  • affirmative action and equal employment opportunity
  • discrimination
  • diversity
  • merit
  • politics and merit


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