Saturday, September 23, 2023

Can We Afford a Spoils System in Our Public Service?

Two months back I wrote a piece entitled “The virtues of an impartial public service” and argued for resistance and avoidance of partisan political appointments in our public service. In that piece I also briefly discussed some of the issues, especially the negatives of a systemic “spoils system”. In this piece I want to extend that discussion purely because media reports seem to suggest that intentions to make political appointments could actually be more than the purging of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of Public Corporations as I argued then. There are reports that the Youth Wing of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), or at least its chairperson, holds the view that party faithfuls and supporters be appointed to not only the CEO positions, but also to Boards of Administration for these public corporations. This has triggered my piece today to simply argue for restraint on this move particularly that it’s insinuated that the Head of State is leaning on heeding this plea.

I wish to begin by tracing the spoils system back to the 1800s in the United States of America, the supposed leading democracy of today. The presidential elections winner of the USA then, Andrew Johnson of the Democratic Party chose to reward his political party supporters and campaign funders with positions in the public service. This was justified by other democrats like New York Senator William Marcy who in 1832 justified the system by asserting that “to the victor belongs the spoils of the enemy”. The justification for the spoils system was that, firstly, it helps maintain an active party organization and guarantees the ruling party loyal and cooperative employees. Secondly, it was argued, it leads to a more effective government because those party faithfuls do have a stake in helping the elected politicians fulfil their campaign promises. Simply put the appointed office holders will ensure the visibility of the party in government operations and help entrench the party culture of delivering services, in the assumption that this party culture will always resonate well with the public interest. I am for now going to assume that those calling for this system are doing so possibly for these reasons.

Lastly, the spoils system or partisan political appointments creates potential to have a government of political party supporters who can easily be used to exert far more control than intended by constitutional provisions. This has often led to corruption, unethical conduct or practices in the public service and to a leadership that is based on bossism. This is a leadership where appointed officials simply owe everything to their leader because he appointed them and will always cover his/her back, lick his/her boots and effectively protect his/her interest, even if that may not be in the best interest of the nation. These group of appointees owe allegiance first to the leader, then the party and only when these two coincides with the public interest would they protect the national interest and this is only a default obligation.

The actual potential dangers of the spoils system are many and worth closer scrutiny and appreciation, in the interest of the public or should I say national interest as opposed to party interest. The two are clearly not always synonymous and complimentary. Firstly, the spoils system restricts appointments to key positions to ruling party activists, relatives to political leaders, campaign funders and sympathisers of the ruling party. These tend to have appointments made on the basis of party needs without regard to appointees’ skills, competencies, qualifications and ability to do the job. This often means that suitable and talented individuals with the requisite skills and competencies are overlooked or side-lined, simply because they are deemed to have not demonstrated sufficient party loyalty. Secondly, and probably more important in this argument, all government positions must be open to all qualified citizens with the required skills and competencies, irrespective of their political inclinations. Public offices and public work is for the public as a general entity not in their political pockets.┬á┬á

I should not be understood to say no political appointees at all costs but rather to say they must be limited and controlled. In those areas where we do go for political appointees, they must pass a confirmation process that exists to ensure that even presidential or political appointees are appointed on merit as well. In short the spoils system when accepted as part of the recruitment process in the public service should not compromise the merit based appointment principles. If undertaken solely as the ruling party or its leader’s prerogative, it becomes a danger to democratic institutions because these public institutions would ultimately lose they culture of protecting and upholding the public interest at all cost. Let’s understand as a nation that public offices are instituted and charged with certain functions, responsibilities and obligations endowed with explicit and implicit powers that ought to be administered solely for the services and benefit of the public and for no other purpose.┬á

This is critical in us understanding the dangers we will eventually open ourselves to, by having such a system as part of the practices of our public service recruitment processes. I wish to stress that for me the underlying principle to guide us is that public offices or jobs must be accessible to all citizens with the requisite skills, competencies and qualifications, irrespective of which political party one belongs to. The conduct, loyalty and commitment of public servants must be to the nation first and in this case I am a great believer of public officials taking an oath of allegiance to the constitution and by implication, national interest as supreme to any other individual’s interest. The spoil system often and ultimately takes away this possibility and allegiances get re directed to individuals at the expense of the public interest. Lastly, I don’t believe that been a member of the ruling party (here I mean any party that might be in power at any point in time) makes any Motswana better than his/her soul mate in the other party or enshrines one with rights to preferential treatment of any kind, especially appointment to public offices. It is called the public service and not ruling party service for a reason. Let’s not temper with meritocracy and professionalism of our public service, it can only be a disservice to our democracy in the long run. ┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á
*Molaodi teaches Public Administration at the University of Botswana


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