Merit and trust – Canadian Government Executive

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June 26, 2012

Merit and trust

For the past one hundred years, democratic states have been moving steadily toward a merit-based society where advancement in the workforce and in society generally reflects qualifications and credentials. The attachment to the principle that the meritorious should succeed has led to a complete restructuring of society, including a dramatic explosion in the growth of educational institutions and the increased reliance on experts and professionals.  

Merit-based advancements have also spawned the creation of myriad professional programs like the MBA and MPA and designations such as the CA and MD. Moreover, it has created the need for head hunting firms, accreditation systems, and human resource experts. More important, it has given effect to the permanent realignment of the power structure in Canada by creating an elite that is based on professional employment and credentials instead of one that is based on birth and privilege. This development has cleared the way for successive waves of new immigrants to advance by working hard and earning credentials.  

Despite the transformation to a merit-based society, annual surveys of Canadians and Americans continue to remind us that we have less and less confidence and trust in our leadership. How is it possible that one of the boldest and noblest of societal transformations has produced a more cynical and less trusting public than was previously the case when the establishment ruled?

In other words, what accounts for the decline in trust when so much of our social policy engineering has tried to create a fairer, more just and competent leadership class? While it will never be possible to establish a direct causal link between increased merit and declining trust, it might be instructive to look at some of the potential explanatory factors that might have made us less trustful of our societal leaders.

A good starting point is the simultaneous move to increased transparency in all public and private transactions and the operating principle that the public has the right to know all about its leaders.  Coupled with the “professionalization” of journalism and the development of the 24/7 news hole, the public now has access to the public and private lives of our leaders that leaves little to the imagination. Unfortunately, most of what we learn has the tendency of diminishing rather than enhancing reputations.  

A second development has been the shortening of the planning cycle for the private and public sectors. This is due to developments in technology and the evolution of our political system but also to the increase in pressure on public and private sector leaders to demonstrate their value by producing quick results. As a consequence, the public has developed “irrational” expectations about the effectiveness of our institutions.

Another development concerns the characteristics of the leadership class in a modern society. In previous times, families ruled the corporate and political world by building vast networks around a geographical base such as a city or province or by family links. In most cases, they were able to pass their power base to later generations since their geographical presence and familial arrangements were constant. Today, our merit-based system does not require a geographical or family-related nexus. Instead of strong geographical bases and tight family connections, the new merit-based leadership follows the jobs, builds a reputation for itself, and develops a network based on professional or expert-based associations. As a consequence, social mobility is based on professional affiliation and educational attainment.

Finally, low levels of public trust are also due to the emergence of a more educated public which understands that leaders face complex problems where there are no easy answers and where solutions are likely to take much longer than their tenure as leaders. As a result, generally speaking, the more educated citizens are, the less trusting they will be of our institutions.  

In light of these developments, the relative low levels of trust might not represent a failure of our current leadership after all. Instead, it may signal that we have to do things differently to deal with the circumstances that define a modern merit-based society.

At a minimum, it means coming to public judgement about whether private behaviour is relevant in holding leaders to account for their performance in both the public and private sectors. More important, we will have to decide what the proper balance is between our ability to make decisions based on data and evidence rather than ideology and relationships.  

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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