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Open to talents not capture

Are the talented ones  appointed?  An important question, because corruption  thrives on rigging selection and appointment processes. In keeping with the French saying, carrière est ouverte aux talents (positions are open to those with talents), the answer to the question requires accepting the principle of merit based and open recruitment. This article outlines the reforms needed to support open and merit-based recruitment.

Context Matters

Appointments are made at a departmental level across the public service, local government and state-owned enterprises. This is a complex system, difficult to monitor, but easy to rig. Recognising the power over appointments is diffuse and decentralised is crucial to developing credible policy options.
The three different approaches to influencing appointments are:

  • Cadre deployment: A political party signals through its deployment committee who should serve in various positions. The intent is to deploy loyal persons -usually at management level – who are  focussed on delivering the political parties mandate. . However, the term ‘cadre deployment’ is catch all term, that does not explicitly show how politicians and bureaucrats have rigged appointment processes.
  • Politically Led Appointments: Politicians often seek to appoint persons close to themselves in senior management positions, and often even at lower levels . Several recent reports on state capture expose these connections between politicians and bureaucrats.  The fisticuffs  over  political appointments is a major reason why the average tenure of Director-Generals is  estimated at 22 months.
  • Informal Networks: The role  of bureaucrats at municipal levels, district offices in appointments  is underestimated. Appointments are made at a bureaucratic level from within a closed network of people. The exact criteria for entry into these networks are often specific to the institution. Criteria however includes family relations, access political influence or having some other traits. This is an under researched area, but the growing body of literature on corruption in schools and hospitals provide evidence of this.

Several other contextual features are also of importance:

  • Merit already exists: There are many committed and skilled public servants.  These are sometimes referred to as ‘islands of excellence’.
  • Merit meets race, gender and disability: Black females remain under represented in senior management positions. However, the pool of capable candidates meeting these demographic markers today is strongest today than at any point in our democracy.
  • Political appointees are sometimes exceptional, but more times disastrous: Some political appointments have successfully driven reforms in the social sector. However, the overall sense is that political appointees have more often failed to deliver,  instead politicising the bureaucracy.
  • Veneer of probity: Human resource policies  govern the process of advertisement and selection. The process has a veneer of probity, which makes objections to appointments difficult.

Policy Proposals

How does ‘talent ‘become the central criteria in appointments?   The answer to this question lies in reducing the overall influence of this-or-that politician over appointments and building a skilled professional pool of public service managers. Policy reform requires two major interventions:

  1. Delineating levels under which politicians do not have a say: The 1997 World Development Report  argues for  a core  reform, in ensuring politicians have a say over only the most senior  appointments. Politicians thus exercise limited discretion in senior appointments, but not at all levels of the public service.  These senior appointments  would serve during the tenure of a Minister and have policy not operational roles. This is similar to the  American administrations where political appointees take responsibility for policy development but are not administering programmes.
  2. Creating a professional public service: Public service managers should undertake an apprenticeship, write entrance exam and renew their accreditation  through continued education. This is  similar to occupations like auditing, lawyering or engineering. This creates a pool of public service managers, accredited and eligible for appointment to senior positions. It would further provide  the pool through which Ministers would select political appointees. This  proposal may provide a solution to the often shocking and disappointing appointments made by politicians. President Ramaphosa indicated that public servants would need to complete compulsory courses in the 2019 State of the Nation, which is potentially a precursor to the reforms proposed.

The reforms provide a basis for reform in the public sector and specifically would provide a clearer set of rules for politicians and managers to follow. In so doing, the prospects of appointing those with talents increases.