Saturday, 5 June 2010

The "best" "person" for the job

The news that Harriet Harman has called for half of Labour's shadow cabinet to be women has stirred up the usual controversy, with calls for "the best man person for the job to be chosen". The same arguments come up with discussions of quotas or all-women/all-BAME shortlists.

It always sounds initially reasonable because who wouldn't want the best people, but there are several big problems with this.

Problem 1: Who says what best means?

If you have a bunch of mostly privileged people in charge at the moment, they will probably assess "best" as "like us". It may well be subconscious, and it may well be justified based on "experience" or "political views" but the effect is the important thing, and the effect will be to perpetuate privilege.

Some requirement to improve the diversity of the representative body1 over time is needed to break out of this pattern.

It's generally accepted, for instance, that there is a critical point in Parliaments where the proportion of women exceeds 30%. Above that point, women are "expected" to be in Parliament, and the process of increasing representation becomes self-sustaining (though measures still need to be taken to ensure that there isn't a bias retained for the more senior posts). Those countries that have reached that threshold have all made explicit efforts to do so (usually using some sort of quotas, either in election or selection processes)

Problem 2: "Best" is not a constant over time

Someone who has overcome a lack of privilege to get to the stage of being a plausible contender for the Shadow Cabinet has necessarily had to put more effort in and work harder to get to that stage than an ultra-privileged default person who - while they still had to work hard for it - did not have additional barriers put in their way.

They might be, on paper, not quite as good at the moment as Mr. Default, but after a year they might well be better than Mr. Default would be.

Problem 3: The implication that our current default representatives are the best

No-one ever claims this explicitly because it's so obviously and laughably false, but it's a fairly clear implicit assumption.

When the effects of privilege on people's decisions and opinions are considered, this is clearly even further from the truth.

Problem 4: The definition of "best" is fluid

If you're only appointing one person, then you can probably come up with some criteria for who the best person is, apply them to the candidates, accept a certain margin for error as inevitable but go with the result anyway.

If you're appointing several people - or for Parliament as a whole, hundreds of people - then it's very tempting to just do the same thing again.

Let's say that we're looking for people to sit on a committee. There are three spaces, and numerous candidates. To simplify, we've got free choice over the appointment, and after consideration, we decide that there are four separate equally important skills that these committee members should have. We assess our candidates against these skills (let's assume a perfectly accurate assessment method, because we've already covered potential inaccuracies in Problem 1) and get the following:

Skill W98710134
Skill X7856925
Skill Y3243845
Skill Z54512104

If we go for appointing the three best candidates in the naive "best people for the job" way, we appoint A, B and C, who have the highest totals. This leaves our team, however, very weak in skill Y (between them, they're as good at this as candidate A alone is at skill W, and it's unlikely to be purely additive) and not much better in skill Z.

By appointing D, E and F instead, despite these three being weaker as individuals, the maximum skills of the team are much better - 10+9+8+10 rather than 9+8+4+5 - and after a little bit of practice and in-team training, we should have a much better committee.

I've intentionally made this an extreme example, for clarity, but even in a more ambiguous case - C having their 7 in Skill Y, for example - I think it would be difficult to justify appointing both A and B.

And so it is with not appointing default people all or most of the time - by increasing the diversity of the representative body, you increase the range of problems it can identify and usefully deal with. I don't doubt the good intent of some of the current default MPs in Parliament, but with the levels of privilege they have, even knowing what the right questions to ask are is going to be unlikely (and that's just the ones that are aware of their privilege and trying to fight it, never mind the ones that are unaware of it and/or quite enjoy having it).

The recent anonymity proposals that I've written about have provided a very clear example of why female MPs are extremely necessary at all levels of government. The proposal was added by an all-white-male negotiating team for the coalition, and largely opposed by women in the opposition parties. A more gender-balanced Parliament or negotiating team probably wouldn't even have suggested the idea.

It's not necessary to be the best in general (even temporarily accepting the quite possibly false assumption that the current best person is a default person) . You just need to be better than all or most of the others at something and not dangerously incompetent at the rest. With the current gender and race balances in Parliament, a mediocre female or BAME MP will almost certainly still benefit the country and Parliament more than all but the most exceptionally talented white male MPs, and - see Problem 3 - the vast majority of our current white male MPs are not "exceptionally talented".

1 The Shadow Cabinet is not a representative body as such, but it in the aspects relevant to this discussion it has many similarities.