Saturday, September 23, 2023

Appointing Authorities in the Public Service

In vibrant and functionally robust democracies, one of the pre-requisites for such is that the public service must be well trained, skilled and possessing competencies that will entrench a culture of good service delivery and protection of the public interest. This further requires that these well trained public servants must be appointed and placed in positions and offices where their expertise and qualifications can be maximised. Appointing authorities in public services then become the more critical component of a government’s ability and commitment to ensure that public servants are not just trained and possessing the right skills, competencies and qualifications, but more importantly, public servants must be appointed, based on merit, to offices and positions where they are not simply qualified for but also where they are the best available on the market. I know the best available can be used subjectively to actually defeat the merit based appointments but here I am referring to appointments based on objectively set procedures and assessment processes, rules and regulations that guide appointing authorities at all times.

On the basis of the above, I wish to discuss the need for well constituted appointing authorities and non-partisan based processes, values and assessment tools used to appoint, promote and dismiss public servants from their positions. We are aware that ordinarily democracies do have the legislative bodies delegating authorities, including that of appointing, especially key or top positions in the public service. In certain instances, like in this country, the constitution would even vest the powers to appoint certain public service position in the presidency, whereas most of the appointments would be delegated to Public Service Commissions, such as the Directorate of Public Service Management (DPSM). The principle of intent about meritocracy and non-partisan based appointments remains the same irrespective of to whom the authority is vested or delegated to. Merit based appointments is just what it is, the best qualified candidate to any office should get the job, irrespective of their colour, gender, tribal affiliation, political views or association and nowadays of course sexual orientation beyond gender would be added.

It is therefore of vital importance that first the appointing authorities themselves are not only aware of the principle but do commit to ensuring that within their authority and power, they are expected to always ensure that the public interest is not short changed by appointing less qualified officers for whatever reason. In the case of commissions and boards that assume appointment duties, the composition of these must be such that it will not compromise on the values and intentions of appointing officers based on meritocracy. It should be of public knowledge that in this country there has recently been talk of appointing public servants on partisan political basis and I am one of those who would argue that, that and any other consideration besides merit, in appointing public servants, is an affront on the public interest principles. Firstly, any appointments not based on merit introduces subjectivity in assessment and qualification considerations and those would always inevitably compromise rationality and objectivity. The danger or at least one of the problems is that once political consideration creeps in, public offices become the domain and preserve of only “politically correct” individuals. It does away with meritocracy and therefore you cannot guarantee that you will always have the best qualified, skilled individual appointed. Secondly, interest based appointments often disenfranchise citizens who are experts and professionals in their field whose sin may only be that either they belong to the wrong interest group (political party, tribe, religion etc.) or they are not known to be belong to any and therefore seemingly cannot be trusted to tow the preferred line if it comes to a push.

Thirdly, most democracies today require that public servants be not only regulated and guided by national laws and statutes alone. There are codes of conduct developed by public service commissions and there are also professional codes of conduct that governs different professions and all these get seriously compromised by partisan appointments of any nature, especially if appointing authorities are also responsible for promotions, transfers, and determination of various welfare packages within the public service. In such scenarios, allegiance shifts from the public interest to the appointing authority and it cannot be guaranteed that individuals and groups of individuals will always act in the public interest. This is so when appointing authorities not only have legal authority but sometimes also possess powers beyond the legal parameters. History has always vindicated Lord Acton’s assertion that “Men cannot be made good by the state, but they easily be made bad……..power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. 

Lord Acton alerts us to the mistake we often commit, by assuming that appointing authorities being individuals and groups with legitimate authority and power will always act rationally and protect the public interest. History is replete with cases of leaders in public services, acting as appointing authorities, abusing their positions and compromising the meritocracy of the public service. We enter public offices as individuals with certain cultural, political, religious, sexual and other orientations and when the system creates openings for us to put these as our values for making decisions such as appointing public servants, we have tended to abuse our powers and authority for other interests outside those of the public. As they often put it in streetwise language power does not only corrupt but some do get intoxicated from it and throws out any public interest based values and morality expected of those who yield these legal authority to decide the composition of the public service.

I have argued in the past, that our public service is one of the most well trained and appropriately qualified, at least up until were seemed to jeer off a bit from merit based appointments, what was lacking then was ensuring that the right skills, competencies and qualifications are in the right places. One of the end results of all these is that personal interest is currently dominating within not just some appointing authorities but also potential candidates for public service positions. It is this merging of interest that will ultimately erode all there is and was about meritocracy and appointing authorities seeing themselves first as protectors of the public interest. Hoping we could soon commit to ensuring that we don’t compromise merit based appointments and ensure that offices are manned by the best available in the market, not the best preferred for some other considerations based on partisan considerations.


*Dan Molaodi teaches Public Administration at the University of Botswana  


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