The lost “meritocracy”

In an article entitled “Georgia, A democracy Under Construction” published October 31, 2011, author Sйbastien Maillard wrote: “In order to create a new enlightened class of citizens open to the West out of nothing, the Saakashvili government began by generalizing the teaching of English in schools. For his part, Giga Bokeria, a close aide to the president, who dreams of a “meritocracy” (providing everyone with the same chances throughout the country), said: “We reformed examinations in order to put an end to corruption, and we now want to provide laptop computers to every student.”

Meritocracy, in the first and most administrative sense, is a system of government wherein appointments and responsibilities are objectively assigned to individuals based upon their merits- namely intelligence, credentials, and education, and are determined through evaluations or examinations.

According to scholarly consensus, the earliest example of an administrative meritocracy based on civil service examinations, dates back to Ancient China. The concept originated in the 6th century BC, when it was advocated by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who invented the notion that “those who govern should do so because of merit, not of inherited status.” This sets in motion the creation of the imperial examinations and bureaucracies open only to those who passed tests.

By and large, political meritocracy means conditions when the state is governed by an intelligent and creative group of people. The legitimacy of such a group is based on its meritocratic nature.

Mikhail Saakashvili has dreamt of a meritocracy for a long time. In his speech delivered at Harvard University in 2010, Saakashvili noted: “They [Russia] tried to destroy our statehood and diplomacy in August 2008, but the process of development in Georgia is so strong that it is impossible to defeat. We are speaking about a long-term process that requires patience. I hope that foreign armies will never get in our way [through] their intervention; our people will never return to corruption, authoritarianism and nihilism. They have become used to meritocracy, individual freedom and democratic values. This is our main success today.”

Yet, once again, in one of his latest speeches given to the participants of the Young Scientists and Inventors Olympiad, Mikhail Saakashvili emphasized: “Meritocracy means that the best will receive financing, while the weak – cannot. Yet, I believe that everyone should have a chance to get stronger. That is why we have to surely develop this system.”

However, even though the leader of the ruling National Movement party has dreamed for a long time about meritocracy and has tried to promote it. Some of the latest initiatives have sparked doubts about whether the Georgian government still embraces “meritocratic” principles or has fallen victim to groupthink.

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. It is the mode of thinking that occurs when the desire for harmony within a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus without the critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.

The primary socially negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking. Irving Janis was one of the first psychologists who led the initial research on the groupthink theory. Janis described three conditions of groupthink: 1) high group cohesiveness; 2) structural faults: a) insulation of the group; b) lack of impartial leadership; c) lack of norms requiring methodological procedures; d) homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology; 3) situational context: a) highly stressful external threats; b) recent failures; c) excessive difficulties with regard to the decision-making task; d) moral dilemmas.

The main symptom of political groupthink is the non-existence of political, expert and examining debates; decisions are made by a small group of “decision-makers” who have become closed and a great distance away from reality and people.

The newest proposals by the Georgian government looks like a perfect example of groupthink: a 3dimensional government, the city of Lazika, and Kutaisi as the parliamentary city. In all three cases the source of ideas was Mikhail Saakashvili, whose initiatives were embraced by the National Movement and the parliament without debates, doubt or hesitation, as if these were direct decrees.

Creating a system of an electronic government (3D government) which doesn’t even exist in the most technically developed state of Japan, has been evaluated by Tina Burjaliani, the Deputy Minister of Justice of Georgia, as possible and realistic. The idea to build the new city of Lazika invited discussions among critics about the cost and the need of such an initiative; Re-settling the Georgian parliament in Kutaisi, effectively distancing it from the political center of Tbilisi, and spending more than 133million lari on its development without the proper political and expert calculations, seems ridiculous not only for Georgian public, but also to some prominent foreign experts. For instance, Caucasus analyst Thomas De Vaal evaluated this decision as a “shame”. And still, the government pushes all three projects forward.

Apparently, Mikhail Saakashvili dreamed so long for a meritocracy that it overlooked the fact of shaping “groupthink” inside his invariable political team; the “groupthink” which by its own nature neglects “meritocracy” as such.

The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here. PDF version.

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