Wednesday, July 8, 2015


by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I'm a little late to the game, but I've been fascinated by reactions to a proposed idea for Canadian politics: an equal number of men and women in cabinet. The subsequent debates about diversity and the perceived conflict with the idea of merit are interesting, even setting aside politics, because those concepts are fundamental to the Canadian public service. From the Public Service Commission:

"The merit system has been the foundation of a competent, professional, non-partisan public service for almost a century."

But many people get the relationship between merit and diversity wrong.

The title of a recent Andrew Coyne piece suggests that such a "quota in Cabinet leaves out the principle of merit":

"If merit is defined in traditional terms, this is obvious nonsense. Suppose, in a governing caucus of, say, 180 members, one-third are women (their current proportion of the House of Commons is 25 per cent). And suppose that the talents and experience to be desired in a cabinet minister are distributed equally between the sexes, such that a fifth of either — 12 women, 24 men — might be considered cabinet material. If nevertheless the cabinet must have an equal number of women and men, then in a cabinet of 36 six women who should not have been appointed will be, and six men who should have been appointed will not be. That may be many things, but it is not the merit principle. 
The only way you can square that circle is if you redefine merit to mean diversity."
In response, Laura Dobson-Hughes wrote on the Policy Options blog:

"‘Merit’ is not itself a neutral concept. We can, for example, define merit as someone with expertise and lived experience in aboriginal affairs. Merit could be policy expertise in policing in black communities, or an understanding of healthcare provision for newcomers."

I could jump in with opinions, but it's the wrong argument. The issue is that merit, as it's colloquially understood, is a complete red herring. When a "merit-based appointment" is considered to mean "the most qualified person for the job", the provisions for diversity do indeed seem at odds, as Coyne describes. But what lurks just outside the conversation is that whether or not someone is good at their job isn't actually the ultimate goal. It's secondary to whether the system on the whole generates good outcomes.

In an environment where many people feed into decisions - through research, consultation, committees, governance structures, and the provision and consideration of advice - it's the dynamics and results of the group, the collective, that matter. To return to Dobson-Hughes's example, one's experience with healthcare provision for newcomers is moot in a committee stacked with colleagues that discount that knowledge.

In Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem, a pair of researchers worked out a "u-shaped" benefit curve to group cohesion. Some familiarity bred comfort and collaborative norms, leading to better results. But too much meant that everyone had the same information and mental models, which inhibited those groups' ability to think outside the box and limited their results. In their model, appointing "the most qualified person for the job" would be sub-optimal - repeatedly and predictably. Turning back to the Canadian public service, such an approach would sacrifice another foundational principle: stewardship.

In the Canadian Public Service

The Public Service Employment Act seems to have squared the circle (emphasis mine):

"Under the PSEA, merit has two components. 
1. First, everyone who is appointed must meet the essential qualifications, which includes official language proficiency. 
2. Second, the manager (or other delegate of the deputy head) may take into account:
  • qualifications that are considered an asset for the work, currently or in the future; 
  • any current or future operational requirements and organizational needs that he or she has identified; and finally, 
  • the current and future needs of the public service, as determined by the employer, in deciding on the needs of their organization."

Not so at odds

Merit and diversity only seem to be in conflict if we conceptualize people's roles in government as the execution of their job descriptions in a vacuum, rather than the role they play in the broader system. 

Note: please don't take this to mean that I think we should aim for diversity 'even when someone isn't the best person for the job'. I'm really not saying that, merely questioning the debate itself. I'm also not defending a partisan platform - this topic was around long before that.

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