Merit is about how you work, not just what you can do

When it comes to employment in the Australian Public Service (APS), merit rules. The Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) even has a Merit Protection Commissioner who’s role it is to help APS agencies ensure that APS values and employment principles are met — and one of those principles is that decisions relating to engagement and promotion are based on merit.

But merit itself is a concept that is poorly understood, even within the APS, and for anyone trying to transition to public service the merit-based recruitment process can be baffling — if my own experience is any indication.

What I’ve learned since, however, and particularly since taking on the challenge of improving recruitment services within one of Australia’s larger agencies, is that the complexity of merit-based processes has more to do with how we have translated the concept into procedures designed to manage risk — unquestionably at the cost of efficiency, and sometimes quality of outcome.

As Annwyn Godwin, Merit Protection Commissioner, said:

The processes that have been built into recruitment and selection to ensure ‘merit’ have tended to become overly bureaucratic and time consuming. Think of what you have seen or heard over the years — there must be a panel of three, panel members must be a certain level above the level of the vacancy, three volume selection reports in case of a review, three or four levels of clearance, highly detailed selection criteria etc, etc. In fact, there is no prescription in the Public Service Commissioner’s Directions for referee reports or even that an interview must be conducted. The key requirement is that there is openness and transparency of process and opportunity.

So a merit-based recruitment process is one that is open and transparent, both with respect to how it is run and to who is afforded the opportunity to contend, and it is one that fairly compares the relevant work-related qualities of applicants to the requirements of the job in order to determine relative suitability (or ‘fit’).

One common assumption is that merit means the person with the greatest claim to a job, based on their skills and abilities alone and setting aside other factors, should get it. This is an understandable assumption — and it’s a natural focus to take when writing an application, because we spend our careers (and our formal education, before that) developing those skills and abilities for the very purpose of making ourselves employable, useful, and productive.

There is more to determining someone’s fit for a role, though, or for an organisation, than their current skills and abilities. Indeed, in many respects, skills and abilities are among the most malleable of characteristics we might select for. Given someone with the right attitude and aptitude, training and experience can close any gap they might have it that respect. Of course, it’s still a relevant factor — the smaller the gap, the better.

But what other factors should be assessed as part of establishing a meritorious recruitment outcome? The APSC lists a number, including:

  • qualifications, training and competencies
  • demonstrated standard of work performance
  • relevant personal qualities, such as honesty and integrity
  • potential for further development, and
  • ability to contribute to team performance.

That last is an important one, and it may not go far enough. It highlights that consideration should be given to relevant factors beyond immediate job fit. For example, hiring people that are aligned to an organisation’s values, its mission and culture is critical for organisations undergoing transformation — bringing in new people with the right qualities can kickstart, or reinforce, an organisational change program.

Another way of saying this is that, when it comes to determining the merit of a candidate, how they work is as important as what they can do.

So, if you’re looking to apply for a job in the public service — or if you’re designing a recruitment assessment process — make sure you take the time to understand the organisation’s direction, and the challenges that it faces in achieving its mission, and the expectations it places on its people to work in a particular way.

What do you bring to the table, beyond the ability to do the job in question, that will set you apart from the rest?

Originally published on LinkedIn.
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