The central question on our article is: to what extent were the nature and content of merit principles for Dutch civil service systems influenced by the (changing) decentralized unitary state, during the periods of the Night Watch, Welfare and Enabling State between 1814 and 2016? In accordance with the decentralized unitary structure as originally devised by the 19th century Dutch statesman Johan Rudolf Thorbecke, personnel management and regulations were (and are) considered the prime responsibility of each (level of) government. Our article shows how neither in past nor present have there been hierarchical relationships in this area, with the exception of centralized wage settlements after the Second World War until the 1990s. In addition, we argue that civil service requirements have altered due to societal and public sector change. Those changes have become visible in a transition from a Night Watch to a Welfare State and more recently an Enabling State. This transition not only influenced what was expected of the role and position of civil servants at different levels of government in the decentralized unitary state. It also had an effect on what has over time been required of civil servants in terms of knowledge, capabilities, attitude, skills and experience. The article explains how the Thorbeckian decentralized unitary state provided a lasting but flexible format to accommodate these civil service system adjustments.