The Merit Principle: An Outdated Concept?


The merit principles are the public’s expectations of having an efficient, fair, and effective system free from political interferences, open to all people, and staffed with dedicated, competent, and honest employees. Most non-governmental and governmental organizations apply this precept during the hiring decisions to ensure that they do not discriminate or oppress applicants. According to this conceptualization, the main determinants are an individual’s ability and competence (Lamboy 13). Depending on the job description, many organizations determine a candidate’s merit by the educational level, personal experience, skills, and knowledge. The ideology of merit is the main tool that human resource officers use in the public sector to allow the public to have excellent and quality services from a neutral and disciplined workforce (Lamboy 15). The merit principle requires management to design processes and procedures that ensure that employees’ recruitment, promotion, and retention are based specifically on fitness and merit.

The process is done to improve and promote the workforce’s economy and efficiency for the good of the general public. Every organization should be served by honest and productive employees, and the merit principle enforces this concept. The system prohibits any political influence or favoritism and advocates for retention and rewarding based on ability regardless of age, race, color, sex, nationality, or religion ((Veit & Scholz 517). Canada adopted the merit-based system in 1967, the first country to take that step. The country’s system highlights six selection criteria with corresponding points adding up to 100 (Romualdi 57). Job applicants can earn 25 points for educational level, 28 for language proficiency, 15 for job experience, 12 for working-age, 10 points if they have a job offer, and 10 for family adaptability (Romualdi 57). Applicants have to have at least 67 points to qualify for a job based on merit (Romualdi 57). In Canada, the federal staffing framework in public service is overseen and regulated by the Public Service Employment Act (PSEA).

Through the act, the Canadian parliament has given exclusive powers for personnel to make job appointments within the public service in PSC unless otherwise. PSEA acknowledges that to serve Canadians effectively, the public service should base its decisions on the values of non-partisanship and merit (McGowan & Ng 311). The act also underscores the need to represent the Canadian diversity consisting of people reflecting different professions, skills, and backgrounds and embodying diverse linguistic, transparent, and fair employment processes (McGowan & Ng 311). This paper offers an in-depth analysis of how the merit principle is applied in Canada and examines whether the system is outdated.

History of the Merit System in Canada

The merit principle in Canada has undergone significant evolutions since it was established in 1918. However, this evolution has happened in ways that the parliament, PSC, and public managers have sometimes deemed ineffective (Clerk). The Civil Service Commission (CSC) was formed in 1908 and represented a significant milestone in the history of public services and the implementation of democracy in Canada (McGowan and Ng 312). Implementing a government-independent commission with exclusive powers for recruiting and appointing people to the public service marked the rise of a non-partisan bureaucracy. The government put an end to broad-based policy patronage and enabled the establishment of a competent civil service. According to Ford, this approach would ensure the successful delivery of public services (123). Furthermore, civil servants would also advise the government on policy decisions by creating a mechanism that will recruit and promote public employees based on an unbiased appraisal of their merits.

In addition to raising the civil service’s integrity, the merit principle’s implementation offered a degree of freedom for civil servants from their political leaders. Although it was clear that public officials and staff could never get complete insulation from political dilemmas, the independent body dealing with recruitment and promotion ensured that they remained politically neutral and give effective advice to leaders guided explicitly by the public’s interests and without fear of consequences on their future careers (Madeira et al. 6). Additionally, the merit system offered public workers the security and independence to resist corrupt politicians who would pressure them into violating or disregarding codes of conduct to further their partisan interests.

In 1908, the country’s parliament made a significant milestone towards developing a professional and competent public service unit that could serve the government as an effective tool for pursuing the public’s interest (McGowan and Ng 312). The parliament also rooted a new public institution that aimed to become an authority in its own right in Canada’s governance. The creation of recruitment and staffing institutions and implementing regulations for appointing public servants did not appear like a crucial state matter (McGowan and Ng 312). However, a decision to develop an impartial and professional bureaucracy is of significance in contemporary society’s development. Democracies require legitimacy, which is derived from their adequacy to deliver public goods and the citizens’ ability to believe that the state bureaucracy will treat them neutrally and fairly.

Despite the potential risks associated with bureaucracies, unresponsiveness to elected governments, and expertise between bureaucrats and elected representatives, creating an impartial and effective public service is an essential component of democratic governments. The regime’s unresponsiveness typically emanates from extra independence and information asymmetry (Clerk). In Canada, the development of a competent public service was linked to the establishment and adoption of a staffing program. According to Romualdi, this project was founded on the belief that recruitments and advancements should be made solely based on independent assessments of merit determined through evaluations and exams (10). This principle comes from a landmark report implemented by the British government in 1854. This recount required the creation of a new public service to meet the challenges and difficulties faced by the country’s civil service (Romualdi 12). Currently, the country’s government could not be operated without the help of a competent and efficient body of permanent officials, working subordinately to the ministers who report to the parliament and the Crown. This is irrespective of their adequate independence, ability, experience, and character to advise, help, and influence the people who sometimes set them.

The progressive implementation of a merit staffing system was the model through which independence, ability, experience, and character would be ensured (McGowan & Ng 3166). The Northcote-Trevelyan report was instrumental in implementing the services for all democracies in Anglo-America, which looked up to it when they reformed their bureaucratic initiatives in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Britain first set up its public service agency in 1855 and slowly developed its merit principle staffing system in the following decades. The US started implementing the merit-based system in 1883 by adopting the Pendleton Act. New Zealand and America joined the team when they adopted the merit-based systems in 1912 and 1902, respectively (Ford 14). With the Civil Service Commission’s formation in 1908, Canada soon became part of these broad reforms (McGowan & Ng 315). Therefore, the British formation of the merit-based system played a significant role in Canada’s choices. Despite great national differences, by the 1920s, all Anglo-American nations, including Canada, had implemented merit-based systems for staffing their public service.

The Principles of Merit Staffing

The Canadian public service system follows a set of principles that every department should adhere to when making staffing decisions. The principles are outlined below:

  • Selection and recruitment must be from qualified people from relevant sources to achieve a labor force from all sectors of society (Lamboy 13). Advancement should also be solely determined based on knowledge, skills, relative ability, and fair competition that ensure all people receive equal opportunities.
  • All applicants and employees should receive equitable and fair treatment in all personnel management sectors without considering their social status (Veit & Scholz 520). This includes political affiliations, color, race, religion, sex, nationality, age, marital status, or disability- with regard to their constitutional rights (Veit & Scholz 520).
  • For equal merit jobs, equal pay should be offered, taking into account domestic and local wages charged by private sector companies, and adequate benefits and rewards should be granted in respect of excellence.
  • The honesty, appropriate behavior, and public interest expectations of all workers should be upheld (Lamboy 13). Effectively and efficiently, government workers should be included. Staff must be retained based on performance adequacy, underperformance addressed, and staff that will not increase their performance to meet the appropriate requirements should be dismissed.
  • In situations where such training and education will lead to greater individual and organizational results, the employees must be equipped with appropriate training and education (Veit & Scholz 521).
  • Employees shall be shielded from arbitrary action, professional nepotism, or divisive political manipulation. They shall not use their official power or authority in attempts to interfere with or alter election outcomes (‘Metric System Principles’). Employees shall be shielded from reprisals for the legitimate disclosure of information that they fairly believe shows a breach of any statute, rule or policy or mismanagement, a major waste of resources, misuse of power, or any significant and unique risk to public safety or health.

The General Operation of the Merit System

Recruitment should be conducted openly in every company to produce a workforce that represents every section of society in an equal, consistent, and credible manner. It is a guarantee that everybody will be granted equal opportunities (Park 85). Staff managers must ensure that workers and candidates do not breach their personal and civil rights. The staff’s hiring process should be based purely on their relative expertise and not on their associations to encourage their knowledge and expertise (Park 85). This not only promotes cooperation but also serves as a strategy for inspiration. The merit system recognizes equal compensation for equal work. This should also be compatible with each employee’s productivity and effectiveness. The merit system’s ideals include a continued evaluation of the employees and the enhancement of other systems, ensuring that their success meets appropriate expectations and plans (Park 87). Merit standards are constantly measured and enhanced by organizations. The staff can then be used effectively and efficiently to improve an organization’s growth and performance.

The creation of human capital is essential to the development of organizations. Effective delivery of instruction and education to staff increases individual performance. The impacts on corporate success are also spillover (Lee-Anne 8). In the merit principle, preparation is a crucial component of achieving market growth. To increase the provision of public services, workers require new training environments, especially if job methods are improved to suit current requirements (Lee-Anne 8). Fairness is a central value of a merit system. This suggests that reward and appreciation should be enhanced. The merit program needs success other than other non-merit problems to be the measure of recognition.

Moreover, it does not mean that duty would be undermined if a merit system retains the incentive. Staff members are encouraged and granted a chance to learn what is required (Lee-Anne 8). Periodic evaluations are later used to assess their performance or professional success. The system of merits has a variety of contexts. These include the creation of official bilingual measures, equality in jobs, and modern civil service practices.

The Canadian Merit Principle

Before 2003, merit was never effectively defined in the country. However, according to Elrick, the principle was elucidated through procedure and regulation (7). Despite the lack of a proper description by the Canadian parliament, the courts defined merit in practice (Elrick 7). Over time, staffing decisions were challenged in the courts, resulting in the formation of a working definition, which focused on relative instead of individual merit. In 1992, the PSEA was revamped to enhance the application of individual merit was not effective because candidates could get rigorous ranks to prevent legal suits and appeals (Elrick 8). The 2003 delineation of merit aimed to move hiring processes away from such an approach and rectify the definition imposed by courts.

Elsewhere, this definition did not break away from previous policies. Rather, it aligned with earlier efforts to enhance less restrictive approaches to hiring and staffing, promote value-based decisions, and allow for more flexibility in the processes (‘Metric System Principles’). Applying court-imposed relative merit systems made value-based staffing decisions hard to make without the vulnerability of an appeal. As bureaucracy increased through the postwar era and the commission’s attempt to make the merit principle an operational reality heightened, the policies and rules became even more cumbersome and complicated (Clerk). The leadership was stifled and its efficacy in public administration, highly compromised. The public service eventually became a root for governmental efficiency, and many individuals reported the deficiency of merit in the precept.

However, not all the adjustments responded to operational issues. Historically, merit has been a problematic proxy for diverse aspirations and values that are in themselves difficult to reconcile or define (Elrick 12). Merit is not merely about individual qualifications, but also ethics and societal values. The rise of multiculturalism and bilingualism presented immense challenges to the system and other representational factors. The changes made in 2003 were similar to prior adjustments that focused on addressing the changing societal values and responded to call for higher operational flexibility and enhanced efficiency (Elrick 12). However, the public service has made efforts to adhere to the principles of merit proposed in 2003. Most agencies and corporations are mandated to observe these principles during their staffing processes.

Despite its significant contributions to the formation of competent and professional public services in Canada, the merit principle became the target of so much criticism. Notably, the commissions established to make the precept an operational reality slowly developed cumbersome and extensive sets of regulations and laws that stifled and complicated effective personnel management (Madiera et al. 4). As the agencies grew, management and government became even more complicated, and society started expecting rapid and more tailored responses to diverse sets of problems. The merit principle became excessively burdensome and unwieldy, thus a poster child to bureaucratic mismanagement and inefficiency.

Furthermore, during the postwar era, politicians mostly felt that they did not have control over the process of policy-making; thus, they started requiring their public services to become more responsive to their roles and directions. As a result, Canada received renewed strength to re-establish previous political control of the bureaucracy, primarily through politicizing appointments (Elrick 19). Sometimes, civil servants personally came to perceive the concept of political impartiality of public services as imposing unnecessary bonds on their legitimate rights to participate fully in their communities’ political lives.

As Canada embraced the concept of democratic equality, there were concerns regarding the underrepresentation and discrimination of minority groups in the state bureaucracies. This further challenged the operation of merit-based staffing (Little 200). As a result of these criticisms, the merit-based system in Canada has evolved considerably over time. Many sectors have eliminated their independent commissions and revamped their staffing systems to respond to the pressures for political responsiveness and managerial efficiency (Ford 23). While the PSC still plays a crucial role as an independent public service staffing agency, the body has gone through numerous changes over the years. Similar to the Canadian public service personnel management system, it had to adapt to the changing environments.

Challenges of the Merit System

Canada has faced a myriad of challenges with its supply-driven point’s merit systems, which allow foreign candidates to apply for immigration without domestic sponsorships from the destination nation. Notably, there have been significant issues regarding immigrant unemployment and underemployment following their arrival in the country. This phenomenon has been attributed to the fact that having a job in advance is not a requirement for immigration (Little, 2016). For instance, the unemployment rate for Canadian immigrants is higher than for native Canadians (6.8% compared to 5.6%). The unemployment incidence for immigrants who have been in the country for less than five years is about 10% (Ford). This data underscores immigrants’ lack of jobs as a crucial shortcoming of the merit approach.

This above-mentioned statistic contrasts with the foreign-born rate of unemployment in the US, which requires immigrants to have prior family or employer sponsorship. In the US, the incidence of unemployment for foreign-born immigrants is 4.9% compared to that of native-born Americans, which is 5.4% (Ford). Immigrants who have stayed in the country for less than five years also find it challenging to enter the Canadian workforce because they face challenges getting jobs that match their skill levels or they need to upgrade their credentials to fit into the Canadian job market (Elrick 17). Canada has tried to address immigrant unemployment and underemployment by altering the points scale to mostly favor candidates and people with higher language proficiency who find it easier to be hired.

Apart from the immigrant unemployment and underemployment issues, Canada also faces a challenge regarding the general public service recruitment program. Since the 1990s, the public service has selected and recruited most of its labor force through word of mouth referrals for short-term contracts (Clerk). Public service jobs are rarely advertised. Most positions are filled through personal connections with the people in leadership positions who also have connections to temp agencies. This practice is exceptionally rampant that in 2001, the Canadian auditor general concluded that short-term contractual employment had become the primary hiring activity within the federal government.

The major problem in the case mentioned above is the formal hiring process. The procedure for finding permanent job openings, advertising such positions, securing funds, interviewing, and recruiting applicants takes a long time. According to Ford, most managers prefer to ignore the lengthy process (Ford 32). They use hiring procedures for temporary workers and contractors to easily find employees and get them working as fast as possible.

The Canadian Public Service Commission’s procedures are explicitly designed to recruit and hire the brightest and best individuals. This process entails sifting through millions of applications and placing potential hires through interviews and tests to find the most qualified individuals (Cortázar et al. 34). It generally takes about five months to fill a position following the merit-based system. As such, managers often seek shorter and more manageable ways of hiring people in the public service (Cortázar et al. 36). Ironically, short-term employees, many times, end up being the best candidates. Many bright and intelligent applicants are unwilling to sit back and wait for over five months for the merit system to render them qualified. Also, by starting with contracts and short-term hires, workers and managers can ensure compatibility with little at stake.

However, such a system is extremely unfair to workers and applicants who desire more than short-term contracts. These workers are denied full benefits and job security for at least two years as employees, and they often develop low morale and low job satisfaction (Cortázar et al. 42). The system does not benefit managers because they always never know the number of employees they can afford to have in different quarters. Also, the reliance on word-of-mouth recruitment often means that Canadians living outside Ottawa get fewer chances of securing jobs in their capital city. According to Cortázar, individuals residing outside Ottawa have to be affiliated with the people in power or relocate to the capital for contractual jobs whose renewal terms are not guaranteed (43). Since 2018, several task forces and committees have been implemented to research federal Human Resource policies.

Most of the committees have recommended that public service managers turn to permanent hiring to ensure that the merit-based system is effective. The potential solution that the committees have proposed is the decentralization of public services (Cortázar et al. 43). This situation means letting units and departments conduct their interviews and recruitment campaigns, which translates to faster hiring. However, there may be potential risks in decentralizing the sector. For instance, reduced oversight could result in incompetent hires, and units and departments may get into conflicts with each other, fighting for the brightest and best candidates. However, decentralization will help speed up the hiring by merit process by allowing units to tailor processes to their own needs.

Is the Merit Principle Outdated?

From the discussion above, it is apparent that the merit principle is far from being outdated. This principle should be adopted by any public service, governmental, or non-governmental organization. This is because the world is moving towards an era where human rights organizations advocate for equality regardless of age, race, color, creed, nationality, or ethnicity. These advocates will enhance measures to ensure that all people get equal and fair treatment in all sectors, including the public and employment sectors (Veit & Scholz 524). The merit principle has numerous advantages that show that it is far from being outdated. It is an effective and efficient tool that ensures a lack of oppression or discrimination in the workplace regarding recruitment and promotion.

First, it offers a scientific framework for evaluating workers’ willingness to enhance their efficiency if they are not happy with it. It also allows for distinctions and gives a strong base for supporting, dismantling, transferring, and firing personnel (Cortázar et al. 47). For promotion, stronger candidates would be chosen. As part of the permanent database, the structural assessment persists and helps separate productive and inactive staff. This way, the selection process will show the defects, if any (Cortázar et al. 47). The incompetent staff can be reported and disciplinary measures taken against them, allowing for a greater sense of responsibility and accountability.

Similarly, employees could be rewarded with incentives such as bonuses and pay for their performance is excellent. Therefore, the system allows managers to stop spot judgments and substitute them with advance judgments (Lee-Anne 9). The trust of employees is also established, provided the structured and unbiased assessment methods. The employees gain a sense of competitiveness, which contributes to higher productivity. The merit principle creates an enjoyable environment in which connections between employers and workers are strengthened. Subordinates are encouraged to strive harder to achieve a decent ranking (Polastri and Cristina 278). Merit rates are valuable to promote and direct an employee’s growth as they demonstrate the employees’ vulnerabilities. Training criteria should then be established, and growth strategies can be determined accordingly (Lee-Anne 9). The system is a structured evaluation tool that produces excellent executives and supervisors. The top management will assess the willingness of managers to generate those reports based on the merit report.


This paper examined the Canadian merit principle to determine whether or not it is outdated. Indeed, the system has its limitations. For example, the formal merit-based rating may not happen in a small department where the informal rating may provide all the needed information. Similarly, most raters may want to apply their merit standards where the final ratings cannot be compared. However, these limitations cannot compare to the benefits of the system. As discussed in this paper, the merit principle allows for staffing processes that are fair and equal. These processes encourage employees to be efficient and satisfied, which is great for any sector. Research shows that every organization desires a workforce that is motivated and productive. Every organization requires employees are engaged and ready to own the company’s visions and processes.

The public sector is not different – to serve the public’s best interests, the public service needs to be equipped with knowledgeable, skilled, and competent employees. As the backbone of every economy, the public service needs motivated and self-driven people to ensure that they serve the country’s interests without fear or prejudice. Such a workforce can only be realized using a fair system and relies on knowledge and skills, as opposed to affiliation. The Canadian public service is no exception. The sector also deserves to have employees capable of handling duties because they are qualified for the position instead of associations or political influences. Therefore, the merit principle/ system is not an outdated concept; rather, it is a timeless concept that should be adopted not just by Canadian corporations but also by all global businesses.


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