The Challenges of Competency Testing in a Divided Society

By Bissessar, Ann Marie | Public Personnel Management, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Challenges of Competency Testing in a Divided Society


Bissessar, Ann Marie, Public Personnel Management


1. Background and Context

The twin island Republic state of Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies is located eight miles off the coast of Venezuela in South America. It is comprised of a population of approximately 1.3 million people of which approximately 43 percent are persons of East Indian origin; 41 percent of the population is of African origin while the rest of the population is comprised of a smattering of persons of mixed descent or of European, Syrian Lebanese or Chinese origin. In 1962, the country attained independent status and adopted the Westminster Whitehall model of government that was essentially a legacy from its British rulers. There were many assumptions as to how the public service was supposed to operate when the country became independent. These assumptions, which were primarily based on the Weberian model, were:

* That the public services were neutral;

* That the public services were free from political interference;

* That the public services distributed state resources in a fair and equitable manner.

Conforming to Wilson's (2) much acclaimed "politics/administration" dichotomy (1887) in order to protect the public servant from the newly appointed politician, a Public Service Commission was introduced by Order in Council (1950) and later in the 1960s other Commissions such as the Police, Teaching, Fire, Judicial and Statutory Service Commissions were added. These Commissions were accorded a wide range of responsibilities for employee management which included recruitment, selection, promotion, training, discipline and termination. Later, in 1965, the responsibility, for training was transferred to the office of the prime minister.

Like countries all over the world, the public service at this time was guided by a merit system. Officers, in the clerical stream, were recruited on two criteria, firstly if they were holders of five ordinary level passes at the General Cambridge Examinations and secondly if they were between the ages of 18-25. After, a number of application forms were received, the applicants were then advised to undergo an examination in which their competencies in the area of mathematics, English and General Knowledge were tested. If they passed all three examinations, they were then asked to undergo an interview at the end of which, based on both the mark attained in the examination as well as in the interview, they were placed on a priority list. The appointment of any candidate was determined by their placement on the priority list.

Based on this system, clerical officers 1 were selected essentially on the basis of merit. Also, as with a number of career civil services around the world, promotions were made on the basis of seniority. There can be no doubt, as many would have argued that this model was one that promoted equity and was a rational model. Yet, as Merton (1968), (3) Blau (1963) (4) and others noted this gave rise to whistle-blowers, as well as a certain measure of incompetence within the organization. The model, though, had more far reaching consequences in a developing, plural society such as Trinidad and Tobago.

Because of the "plural" or "divided" nature of this society, as Smith (1984), Furnivall (1939) (5) and others noted, the different groups often "would meet in the market place but would not mix." In other words, the interaction of the various groups would be primarily at an economic level and not at the broader societal level. In the case of these societies and similar societies, as Dauda (1990) and Subramanium (1967) (6) pointed out in the case of Nigeria and India respectively, it meant that one group, because of the nature of their assimilation in the society and the level of education obtained, would have easier entry into the public services. The lack of representation by the other major group, of course, would later have implications for the way the resources of the state were distributed. …

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