The challenges of meritocracy

Meritocracy, and its merits and failures, are much the talk of the town as the Rajapaksa Government continues to fill positions of power and influence within the public service and state-owned enterprises.

In a meritocracy, the ideal is that the best man or woman will rise to the top on the basis of expertise, ability, and achievement overruling the aspects of status, connections, and favour. A true meritocracy delivers a government where people of education and ability – who display either academic or professional merit – are selected to positions of authority.

Nepotism and politics have historically been unfortunate bedfellows; there’s hardly any nation that may realistically claim to have rooted that perennial relationship out in full. Equal playing fields are a distant dream, especially in this part of the world, and one’s connections, influence, and status are of consequence in all matters of life – even when gaining entry to private schools, or being selected to plum corporate jobs. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that despite the best intentions of a president determined to reset the prevailing political system that some appointments would seem less meritocratic than others.

The current discourse on meritocracy has seen the dissection of new appointments in light of their suitability and worthiness of the roles. While not delving into specific examples, what we would like to highlight is the myopia that our ruling, upper classes (where the discourse is taking place) continue to suffer from that only domain expertise equals ability.

If one word could describe today’s world, it would be “dynamic” and that dynamism requires every one of us to be able to review, adapt, and realign ourselves to change with the constant changes and uncertainties in our environment. In fact, multidisplinary is the name of the game for the future. We’ve understood that everyone has multiple talents and motivations and can learn and hone them through experience in many roles, and that great design and innovation happens when people have well-rounded skills and knowledge and the ability to apply them to solve problems with creativity and empathy.

Competent leadership is not just domain knowledge, but also the ability to lead, manage, and inspire others to achieve shared goals. Introducing business leaders to public sector roles brings in private sector thinking from the very top. And in essence, that should translate into more confident risk taking, the exploration of new possibilities and opportunities, new collaborations, and better fiscal discipline. The challenge for the business personality is to grasp the scale and complexity of government and harness that to stimulate growth and channel results.

Modern public service desperately needs to absorb an entrepreneurial mindset and that is what a functioning meritocracy should deliver. As the tone from the top trickles down to the layers and layers of public servants, the need is to energise and stimulate talent and innovation to offer public servants too a whiff of reaching their potential in a system that rewards ability, and not just the seniority.

In the final equation, meritocracy must find peaceful co-existence with Sri Lanka’s democracy; neither system is perfect but if the end result of our newly minted awareness of meritocracies translates into merit-based voting, then we are onto a good thing: An empowered public using their democratic right to demand that its leaders are hardworking, competent individuals of integrity and therefore, deserving of their vote by merit. Time will tell.