Merit Principle

… a core term in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


Hiring on the basis of merit is cited as a core principle of most civil services but its precise definition remains remarkably illusive.

As Kenneth Kernaghan (reference below) wrote in his 2008 literature review for the Public Service Commission of Canada:

“Many discussions of merit, both in the formal literature and in public service discourse, are not based on an explicit, agreed-upon definition of the term. This can result from a lack of rigour but it can also be the result of manipulative intent. The use of nebulous or shifting meanings of merit may suit the purposes of one or more parties to a discussion or decision on the practical application of merit in particular cases. Moreover, the matter of definition is complicated by the fact that the meaning of merit has shifted over time. Merit has become a much richer and more complex concept that is infused with central, and sometimes contending, public service values.

“The first point that should be made about the meaning of merit is that a careful distinction must be made between the merit “principle” and the merit “system.” This distinction is a central and enduring feature of discussions on merit, both in Canada and elsewhere.”

“… The current definition of the merit system is very similar to these earlier ones. The Public Service Commission defined it recently as “the collection of processes, practices, rules and procedures governing particular appointment actions.”

The Government of British Columbia describes the merit principle in terms of the process to be followed for hiring:

“Hiring decisions must be made according to the principle of merit to ensure they are non-partisan and based on competence and ability to do the job.

“The Public Service Act states that the matters to be considered in determining merit must, having regard to the nature of the duties to be performed, include the applicant’s education, skills, knowledge, experience, past work performance and years of continuous service in the public service.

“The concept of merit has been the foundation of hiring in the public service for more than 100 years, and continues to be an important factor in ensuring that we have a strong, neutral workforce that is capable of providing excellent service to the public.

“For hiring managers this means you are responsible for holding a fair, consistent and transparent process that results in the appointment of a qualified and competent applicant.  Your competition should be reflective of the following:

  • The successful applicant meets your stated selection criteria
  • The assessment of applicants directly relates to the job requirements
  • You considered the factors of merit (see above)
  • You followed applicable collective agreement provisions, such as calculation of years of continuous service for BCGEU positions
  • You have considered all staffing review requests resulting from your competition, before confirming the appointment
  • Your hiring process is well documented

“All appointments must be merit-based, with some exceptions that are noted in the Act.”


Kenneth Kernaghan 2008, Public Service Commission of Canada, at, accessed 28 August 2016.

British Columbia, Principle of Merit, at, accessed 28 August 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 28 August 2016.