The essence of merit-based appointments in our Public Service
by Dan Molaodi
One of the defining principles of the composition and culture of our public service has been adherence to meritocracy, especially in the appointment of individuals to public offices.
I want to believe that we still believe in the efficacy and intent of that principle and, within the public servants, there is an inherent expectation that appointments to positions are or should be based on merit. There are, however murmurs that may suggest that we have as a nation abused this principle and simply clouded its intent with appointments that may have very little, if any, of merit considerations.
My concern this week is not so much the extent that we sometimes ignore this principle, but rather some of the resultant effects of not following it and a bit of what the murmurs emerging out of public services may mean, if indeed there is substance in those.
A brief background on the principle would suffice for purposes of this discussion. The merit based principle provides for appointments to public offices to be largely guided by professional qualifications, skills and experiences of individuals, as matched against the functional responsibilities of the offices they are appointed to.
Part of this relationship speaks to the powers, authority and administrative discretionary limits to be exercised in those offices. This requires that individuals must have the capacity and understanding to judiciously and appropriately exercise these aspects to safeguard the public good. This is critical for purposes of ensuring that within the public service the decisions of whatever form emanate from the relevant offices and by the relevant officers whose training and level of expertise and professionalism is appropriately matched with associated levels of power, authority and discretionary roles.
The principle also assumes that even when we tamper with it for political expediency and other considerations, we don’t grossly compromise the expected levels of performances by appointing officials to critical positions of power and authority, when their skills, experiences and qualifications are not a match to the requirements (at least minimally) of the said offices. Or, as has sometimes been the case, we don’t appoint very richly experienced officers to positions that will not tap on their rich experiences to the maximum benefit of citizens.
I think on occasions we are satisfied with minimum performance standards when we have other more qualified officers who could actually be giving us more quality service in certain positions. This is one reason for the silent murmurs that are currently been heard in some corridors of the public service.
This principle also recognises that all other human resources’ systems and measures are to be crafted in a manner that suggest a clear understanding and appreciation of intents and benefits.
This requires that appointing authorities at their varied levels must at all times match the level of officers’ expertise with jobs they appoint them to. I am convinced that in our country’s public service this should not be a tall order for two main reasons. The first is that at the level of political office, like ministers and politically appointed diplomatic positions, we are at a stage where we cannot run short of people who possess the requisite competencies to either run ministries or be head of foreign missions.
It is for this reason that I argue that currently there is no excuse for appointing less competent and marginally qualified individuals to these two streams of offices. We have historically had ministers being literally thrown at any ministries even when there may be other better qualified politicians to lead such ministries.
Let me point out that I have nothing against political appointments in principle, but just to argue that even those must at all times be aiming at adding value to service delivery.
The second reason is that at the level of appointed non-political public officials, I am convinced that our public service has over the years built appropriate capacity by training experts/professionals in certain cadres, save for the more specialised areas. These trained professionals some with a whole load of experience and knowledge of the public service terrain must be optimally utilised for the best results possible.
They must be in the right places/positions where their expertise can be fully maximised. The early years of the public service saw a lot of deployments especially in the management/administrative cadre across professions. This was understandable then because of the fewer numbers of adequately trained and skilled individuals in those positions, but I am convinced that the public service of today can no longer benefit from such deployments across professions. There are very few exceptional cases/situations where across professions deployments could make sense. It is for this reason that I would argue that some of the murmurs are a result of these promotions, placements, redeployments that have seen seasoned professionals in certain areas having to shift to new areas at a time when they are preparing for their retirements.
The murmurs are also borne from discontent among those experts who are inevitably overlooked when some of these shifts in personnel take place. Any form of study on productivity levels in the public service would not ignore the impact of these shifts on lower productivity. Amongst the murmurs is the slowly developing culture of silence within experts and professionals who should be shaping the culture of merit based performance in the public service. This type of silence when people are simply avoiding healthy and necessary dialogue on key government policies and programmes, just so that they play it safe to protect their continued work, is in my view, compromising improved levels of quality service delivery. When experts and very experienced professionals hesitate or worse, l shy away from giving their expert advice, to protect their jobs then all is surely not well in the public service.
All I am attempting to put across is that we are at a stage where our public service must uphold the principle of merit based appointments and limit any other considerations that compromise the quality of service delivery, when appointments to public offices are made. This is important for both political and career based appointments.
Molaodi teaches public Administration at the University of Botswana