Best Practice
May 7, 2012

Is there still merit in the merit system? You bet!

During the American presidential election campaign of 1976, Jimmy Carter, then the Democratic candidate and soon to be president, quipped: “There is no merit in the merit system.” In doing so, he manifested a level of frustration with his country’s cumbersome personnel management system that would undoubtedly have been familiar to many politicians and public managers in other democracies where the merit principle remained a cornerstone of public administration. Today, despite the many reforms that civil services have undergone in the name of greater government efficiency, the value of the merit system is often questioned.

More than a century old – the seminal Northcote-Trevelyan report that gave it birth in England was published in 1854 – the merit principle has been much criticized over the years. In an age of efficiency and “bureaucracy busting,” the staffing systems generated by the application of the merit principle seem a perfect illustration of the web of rules that is deemed to hinder risk-taking, managerial flexibility and efficiency in public administration. As public executives and managers struggle to build public organizations and deliver results within the constraints of the merit system, it is tempting for them to see the merit principle mainly as an impediment to performance. In this regard, Canada has been no exception. Over the century that they have been in place, the merit system and its independent institutional guardian, the Public Service Commission, have been much maligned.

There is no denying that our public service’s human resource management system remains complex; ongoing efforts at making the recruitment and management of personnel simpler, more flexible and efficient are worthy objectives to pursue. As the Canadian public service faces serious renewal challenges and attempts to transform itself in order to better address increasingly complex policy and service-delivery challenges, we can only hope, as citizens, that these efforts will be successful.

As we continue to pursue greater flexibility and efficiency in the management of personnel, it is important to not lose sight of the fundamental values that originally led us to put in place the merit system. Furthermore, we should not forget the exceptional contribution that this system has made to the development of a professional public administration in this country. An impartial bureaucracy, professionally competent and sufficiently independent to speak truth to power, has been a cornerstone of our system of democratic government. The merit system played a crucial role in this achievement.

In this perspective, a careful look at the history of the merit principle in this country should lead us to exercise caution in reforming our human resource management system in the pursuit of efficiency and managerial flexibility. Over the last century, the application of merit in the Canadian public service has been about more than the prevention of political patronage. When the Public Service Commission was created in 1908, and the application of the merit principle extended to the entire public service ten years later, the hand-out of government jobs to loyal supporters by political parties was indeed the central practical issue to be confronted; the clean-up of our political mores and the fair access to public employment for citizens were some of the reformers’ imperatives.

An equally important concern was the need to develop a more professional bureaucracy able to tackle more competently the increasingly complex tasks that the government was called upon to perform. From the outset, merit and the bureaucratic independence that it implied were seen as necessary underpinnings of a more effective public administration. This is an important fact worth pondering as we continue to consider the future of the merit system as part of our search for more effective governance.

It may also be tempting to think that the political issues that gave birth to the merit system are now a thing of the past; indeed, the distribution of low-level post office jobs at election time is long gone. But, on the whole, the fundamental principles at stake in the debate over merit, such as the need for “neutral competence” in advising our elected officials or the need to ensure impartiality in the treatment of citizens, remain germane to our contemporary condition. At a time when the events examined by the Gomery Commission are still fresh in our minds, that much should be obvious to Canadians.

We share these challenges with other countries. Across many liberal democracies, the excessive politicization of civil services remains a matter of obvious concern. Political meddling into the work of the bureaucracy has been at the heart of several of the controversial issues of recent years, whether it’s the release of scientific evidence on climate change, the handling of emergency relief services (e.g. after Hurricane Katrina) or the alteration of intelligence reports used to justify military actions. The relative independence of public servants, their selection on the basis of merit and their ability to withstand illegitimate political pressures without fear of severe repercussions on their career are clearly matters of great importance for today’s civil services.

For these reasons, while we may understand, and even share, former President Carter’s frustrations about the merit system, we would be wise not to lose sight of the broader picture. We must remember that, over the last century, the merit system, as frustrating as it can be, has played a crucial role in ensuring that Canadians (elected politicians and ordinary citizens alike) can benefit from the services of a world-class public administration made up of competent professionals who generally enjoy an appropriate measure of political independence.

The Public Service Commission, as both an independent oversight body and a dedicated personnel agency, has played a crucial role in making this system work over the years. As the Commission turns a hundred years old, it is worth remembering the dedicated men and women who served it over the years; they served us well.

Luc Juillet is the director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and Ken Rasmussen is the director of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina. Their book, Defending a Contested Ideal: Merit and the Public Service Commission, 1908-2008, was published in August.

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