Seniority vs Merit
Although there can’t be two opinions on the preference of meritocracy in public life and governance, it must be understood that both seniority and merit have their merits and demerits. The notion that being a ‘senior’ in a particular field, measured solely in terms of the number of years spent in that field, is the real determinative of an individual’s competence is deeply-embedded in our society’s ethos. This is not to belittle the value of experience, and especially quality experience, which can be indispensable. At times, complex ideas only unravel themselves after one has had the opportunity to analyse and re-analyse an issue, an effort spanning years. And surely exposure to the system makes one understand the system better. But if the system is particularly broken, and works in an abysmally oppressive manner, then there is value also in new, untainted ideas, an outside perspective, which the young, and the not yet indoctrinated, are able to bring forward. Waiting in line, however, makes functioning in the status quo bearable, and eventually the status quo becomes the only reality.
The proponents of meritocracy, on the other hand, assert that promotions and appointments purely on merit can put an organisation on the road to progress with innovative ideas and better management skills. On the other hand, those who believe in the seniority principle contend that individuals appointed as heads of public sector institutions on this basis have experience on their side, and hence are better positioned to understand the demands of their work, set goals and lead their organisations in the right direction.
The downside of the merit-only principle is that chief executives of important organisations are, under this cover, inducted by reason of political considerations or favouritism and nepotism rather than impeccable professional credentials, thereby undermining the interests of the institutions they lead. It is a thing that we have witnessed in the not-too-distant past. The decaying of society is owing to nepotism and favouritism which, with the passage of time, foments unrest, bias and incompetence. Thus, Imran Khan was well within his rights as he called for a society based on merit, and to ignore the conventional bureaucratic ladder of seniority.
Since ours is a hierarchical and patriarchal society, and the laws we follow to this day are not only outdated but quite inorganic too; therefore, a combination of both the principle of merit and seniority seems to be the better way forward. To set merit in such an environment, the pyramid upside down needs to be redone, and the way to go is evolutionary reforms.
Nonetheless, there is substance in the proposition, forwarded by the PM, that the heads of state institutions should be appointed on the basis of merit. Moreover, they should be the expert of the subject that they would be mandated to deal with. Obviously, this expertise would come with seniority in service and by going through the process of trial and tribulation. But again it is not seniority that should be the only criterion. Landmark decisions made in service careers, initiatives as well as honesty and selflessness should form the basis of merit. This is why many in the country lament to this day the enforcement of quota system and special consideration on the basis of regionalism. That may be a necessity for a while — until and unless that populace is uplifted from backwardness, but not for all times to come.
So is the case with the irrational syllabus and testing format for civil superior services. People with weird backgrounds and alien degrees clinch posts and departments that are Greek to them. And then they hold on the reins till superannuation. Then how can competence and merit be in vogue? When calling for a merit-based society, the fulcrum of reform should be the educational tiers, followed by establishment of a decorum that values judgmental bureaucracy rather than pen-pushers on bye-laws. Nurturing acumen, wisdom and civility is the way to enforce merit in society. Time to walk the talk.