Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Civil Service Question (Part 2)

Having given an outline of the civil service question in my previous piece, it's worth going into a few aspects in more detail. I'll deal here with two issues in particular. First, characterising explicitly the absence of a serious public sector recruitment programme. While the (often blatant) trade-off between race and expertise is useful to illustrate how far the civil service is from a meritocracy, it potentially obscures the fact that many talented black South Africans are being excluded as well. Second, to make any genuine headway when it comes to the policies governing the public sector, we need to examine the various groupings who have a direct interest in blocking a system of merit-based recruitment and promotion. (A third issue which also merits attention is what a good recruitment, training and career development programme would look like. While important, this is fairly intuitive and I don't have the space to discuss it in this piece).

Entering the Civil Service

As a young South African interested in a career in government where do you start? Perhaps you might go to the main government webpage and look for information on recruitment and selection processes. But there is nothing there. Only information about applying for advertised, vacant posts. So you try individual department webpage, focusing on core departments: basic education, health, transport... Nothing. Only vacancy adverts. Aha, trade and industry has a 'careers' section. Oh, just a blurb and a fancy vacancies template. Department of public service and administration? The website's down.

As far as I know, only one department has a recruitment programme that comes close to a decent international standard, and that is the usual exception: Treasury. In particular, they have a graduate recruitment programme, which incorporates bursaries and internships. Many departments have internship programmes but these are typically advertised on an ad hoc basis, badly managed, badly run and not connected to any explicit or deliberate recruitment or career development plan. Furthermore, most government departments are nowhere to be seen when it comes to careers fairs at top universities across the country. Contrast that to somewhere like the UK, where students from top universities (e.g Cambridge and Oxford) have special transport provided to get them to civil service careers events in London. Is there such a comparative glut of skills in South Africa that government can afford to be so coy?

By contrast, private sector entities, despite being able to offer higher pay and more appealing work environments, have well-publicised, structured recruitment programmes and recruit aggressively for the best candidates and graduates. Anecdotal evidence from undergraduate and graduate students at top South African universities suggests that, regardless of race, very few are interested in, or have even considered, careers in government. And as we have seen above, for those who might be interested there is little to encourage or assist them. Even if we were to keep the racial composition of the public service exactly as it is now, the quality could be improved dramatically by actually putting structures in place to recruit the most talented black graduates. Instead, most departments recruit candidates of significantly lower quality, but later have to headhunt skilled black professionals from the private or other sectors at a significant premium.

Vested Interests

To many people unfamiliar with these issues, such a situation seems incredible. How on earth was this allowed to happen? And why is it being allowed to continue? The first question is really one for a proper history of the transition from apartheid, and I am not going to even try to answer it here. The second question is a little easier to address. Let's focus on some key groups that are either active in maintaining the status quo, or not speaking out against it.The remarkable thing is how these groups are dispersed across the entire spectrum of political views.

Ruling-party politicians and public sector unions

Let's start with the two most obvious groups that have a great deal of influence over the process: the public sector unions and ruling-party politicians. The former have an obvious stake: many of their members are likely to fall below a decent quality threshold, and a significant proportion of these would probably not succeed in 'retraining' to the required standard. Regardless of political views, one needs to be frank about the fact that for unions as organisations it makes very little difference whether their members are less qualified than they ought to be; union membership is not going to be affected, so the focus is on representing current members' interests at any cost. Having said that, one also suspects that more talented and qualified individuals may be less likely to join some of the existing unions which would provide one part of a direct explanation for the defense of the status quo.

What of the politicians? In the previous post I discussed the high turnover of DGs, and how this was usually more a consequence of squabbles with political heads (i.e. ministers) than to do with competence per se. Similar considerations apply to all ranks of the civil service: competent individuals are a threat because they know more than the minister and their advisors, they are more likely to speak up against policies that might be politically convenient but socially damaging,  and by virtue of competence and qualifications they are in a stronger position since they are not as reliant on civil service employment (they could move into the private sector, for instance).

Competence, therefore, is an annoyance to two kinds of politicians: those who want to make policies, or implement existing policies, to score political points at the cost of undermining the official objectives of the department; and, those who want to engage in corrupt or quasi-corrupt practices. To quickly distinguish between those two concepts: 'corruption' would be taking a bribe in a tender process for an otherwise sensible project, while 'quasi-corruption' would be pursuing a non-optimal project because a relative has a company that would benefit from it. The latter is harder to prove and more difficult to prosecute but - interestingly - can do much more damage. (I will discuss this issue in more detail in a later post). Perhaps the most blatant example of abusing the civil service in order to secure political advantage, was what has been called the 'Oilgate' saga. A parastatal, PetroSA, paid a business - which many have only been chosen for its political connections - for a service that was not delivered, because the money was instead channeled to the ruling-party as election funding.

Business and the official opposition

Those are two obvious groups. There are other groups, however, complicit in what has happened to the SA civil service and they can be found on the left and right of the political spectrum. Let's begin with the right. Whether it is the official opposition (the Democratic Alliance), organised business or the parts of the media and academia associated with these, there is an ideological bias against government involvement in society. This is especially the case when the government in question shows any signs of a 'leftist' agenda. These notions of left and right are of course crude, but they are a useful shorthand. Similarly, we can summarise the (explicit or implicit) opposition of these groups to a strong government by the notion of laissez faire or 'small government' philosophy.

Big business (and more niche entities like consulting firms) finds itself in something of a bind when it comes to this issue. In the short-run, it typically benefits from government incompetence. Government overpays for tenders and outsources excessively, relative to what it would if staffed by competent and well-qualified individuals. Furthermore, it is easier for business to engage in brinkmanship when government knows that it is not as well-informed. We have seen such brinkmanship be very successful in a number of key policy clashes, like reform of the banking sector and medicine pricing (to name just two instances). A more competent civil service would, it is true, have come-up with better policies, but would also have been much more confident in pushing them through against self-serving industry opposition. Naturally, business-oriented publications such Business Day and Financial Mail will bemoan government incompetence, but may prefer it to greater government intervention. Other publications and media rely heavily on what I will politely call 'economic commentators', who typically reflect the ideological positions and vested interests of their employers (financial sector companies, consulting organisations and the like).

This is all in the relative short-term. In the longer term, however, as government becomes increasingly incompetent, it may not even be able to appreciate the brinkmanship tactics mentioned previously. In short, the government becomes so incompetent that it begins to make substantial, but seriously damaging, interventions into various areas of society including the economy. Having reaped the benefits of previous government incompetence, businesses now start to find their profitability and international competitiveness under threat. Furthermore, locally they find it increasingly difficult to compete for government work as they become outmaneuvered by enterprises that are prepared to engage in corrupt or quasi-corrupt practices. In the really long run, the wheels of the society come off completely, the economy collapses and many businesses go under. That might sound melodramatic, but there is ample historical evidence for this sort of process in other countries. What this means is that business vacillates between trying to encourage government capacity in some areas (e.g. infrastructure provision) and discouraging it in others (e.g. regulation and consumer protection).

The official opposition by-and-large represents those South Africans who benefit disproportionately from the private sector and/or hold ideological positions that are antithetical to a strong, interventionist government. That, at least, is my explanation for why civil service quality and recruitment has not been an issue on which the opposition has been especially vocal. To the extent that any right-of-centre grouping has been vocal on the subject, it has been the trade union Solidarity. This is for the fairly obvious reason that it represents primarily white workers and has been involved in challenging certain race-based promotion decisions in the public sector (e.g. in the police force).

Left-wing elements of the ruling alliance

What might seem more surprising, is that very little has been said by those on the left of the ruling alliance about these issues, even leaving aside union alliances that include public sector unions. The attitude toward these issues from the two main entities in this part of the political spectrum - the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) - and indeed other more extreme left-wing groups, can be seen in their derogatory references to 'technocrats'. In this sense, technocrats are seen as individuals with some subject-area expertise who use that as a means to dismiss the need for broader consultation or input into decision-making, thereby acting in an anti-democratic manner. Furthermore, such individuals tend to be more closely aligned to centre- or right-of-centre political views.

This view, and the terminology for expressing it, appears to have arisen primarily from these groups' negative experiences in social and economic policy debates from 1996 onwards. [Recall that 1996 was when the macroeconomically conservative Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy was promulgated, and appeared to displace the more socially-oriented Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). (There remains to this day debate about whether GEAR displaced RDP, who was primarily responsible for that, etc.).] The 'technocrats' were typically economists, some in the National Treasury, with fairly traditional views on economic policy and budget deficits, and these views found favour with Thabo Mbeki.

Ironically, however, the notion of technocracy was first developed explicitly by the critically eccentric, but influential, American economist Thorstein Veblen, who proposed it as a means of countering economists' influence on social decision-making (employing the like of engineers instead). Admittedly, the modern interpretation has become more broad. Nevertheless, the employment of highly skilled civil servants would go some way to addressing the many concerns of the SACP and COSATU as regards issues of service delivery, corruption and the like. So much as business opposes state competence to its long-run detriment, so too do these entities oppose it to the cost of the social groups (constituencies?) they claim they are most concerned about.

Black business

A final grouping that needs to be considered is what is typically called 'black business'. By this is normally meant: businesses distinguished primarily by their black economic empowerment (BEE) credentials; aspirant black business people and groupings representing these - most notably, the Black Management Forum (BMF). This broad group fears competence in government, in as much as that might jeopardise the existing emphasis on empowerment credentials and race in government tender processes, as well as efforts to increase that emphasis/weighting. Relatedly, public sector recruitment that places greater emphasis on skills and talent - whether through more aggressive and structured recruiting of black graduates, or less emphasis on race - would set a precedent which may then be used to roll-back the emphasis on race in tender processes.

An interesting historical note

After using the term, it occurred to me to try and find historical references to the 'civil service question'. In doing so, I came across a 19th century American movement known as the Civil Service Reform League, which focused on the 'efficiency' of the civil service and lobbying for improvements in this regard. In the next decade a key piece of policy (and important extensions thereof) was passed - the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act - which sought to entrench the principle of merit in civil service recruitment. The social context in South Africa is of course importantly different, but we could certainly do with an equivalent of the Civil Service Reform League.


  1. The Pendleton stuff is fascinating, especially because of the interplays between the 'exam-qualified' civil servants and the 'local' (and often corrupt) politicians in very state and local political organisations. However, it was also the case the the local people may have had tacit and explicit knowledge that the exam-qualified people did not, which often resulted in local people favouring them over the exam-qualified people (there are examples of this in NY State and Pennsylvania). Moreover, the exams often required quite arbitrary knowledge not pertinent to civil service itself, for example the geography of ancient Greece (if I remember correctly).

  2. Thanks, that's a really interesting nuance. Do you know a good source on the reform movement and subsequent legislation? I know a bit more about some of the foundations of the British civil service, starting with the likes of Benjamin Jowett at Oxford. (And that partly explains the Oxbridge bias still present in the upper echelons of that civil service today).

    On a practical side, I would think that any sensibly structured recruitment process would also place weight on actual experience and knowledge. E.g. Somebody who had worked with a successful local NGO might be hired over someone with better exam marks or formal qualifications.

    I should note that I am not necessarily advocating a system that is reliant primarily on entrance exams. The British have quite clearly gone overboard with those, subjecting candidates to multiple rounds and multiple days of interviews and tasks. Rather, there should be a strong emphasis on merit/ability (broadly defined) and a structured programme to bring strong, well-intentioned individuals into the civil service.

  3. The Competition Commission, which falls under the DTI, has a fairly well structured recruitment programme, offering a graduate trainee programme as well as a masters research grant. See
    I wonder if the Comp Comm, Treasury, SARS and others would consider a joint recruitment effort that could gradually come to include other departments?

  4. @SpiKe: Yes, the CompCom programme is definitely one of the better ones. Your suggestion may be good strategically but I have some misgivings about it. There has been a concern about 'centralisation' of capacity in national government, and within national there is a strong concentration in Treasury and DTI. The approach is then to redeploy people from Treasury elsewhere - e.g. to failing provincial departments. But I think this is firefighting stuff and puts a lot of political pressure and risk on the small group of very competent individuals in government.

    To illustrate. There has been at least one programme I know of - - that was well-structured and focused explicitly on developing capacity for the public sector (broadly), with full demographic representation. The idea was to get it going and transfer to government. DPSA and various powerful people kept saying they would take it on but never did. The donors have pulled out and the programme is winding down. Nevertheless, about 70% of participants have been employed in the public sector which is a pretty good success rate. It is not flawless but nothing like it even exists in government right now. My point is that without broader buy-in from Cabinet and responsible departments like DPSA, nothing will fly whether Treasury/DTI-driven or not.

    Once the principles are accepted then there are a few ways we can skin it, one of which might be to start in some good departments and 'roll it out' as you suggest.

  5. Dear Mfundza, I really enjoyed these two posts on the civil service, thanks!

    Alec Erwin ran a course during the UCT summer school which essentially reiterated the point of a strong, independent civil service, over and over again. In particular, the presentation from Joel Netshitenzhe on South Africa as a developmental state highlighted the critical role such civil servents play in ensuring that economic growth is healthy and shared, a key question.

    While I think your analysis with regards to the various stakeholders and why they have discouraged a stronger, more dynamic civil service is valid, I would suggest that it would as much be in their interest to have such a civil service: The political bosses could take the credit for its successes, the private sector would be able to form more effective partnerships and the various political formations could actually have examples from which to work when arguing in favour or against policies. Do you agree?

    Thanks again,

  6. Thanks Gordon. I didn't even hear about the Erwin course.. Nevertheless, those kinds of comments - if they have real emphasis rather than being mere asides - are a fairly recent phenomenon. (Jay Naidoo was also saying some similar things re the developmental state last year). It is also notable, from a political perspective, that they are not being made by individuals who hold the levers of power (anymore).

    I agree with you in part about the fact that most of the groups identified should benefit from a more competent and efficient state. However, they key point - which perhaps I should have emphasised more - is that the benefit is often medium- to long-term, and is accompanied by incurring costs and foregoing gains in the short-term.

    For instance, the political career cycle is such that taking-on the unions and few hundred thousand civil servants is unlikely to yield much benefit to a particular politician or political cohort. Witness the experiences of successive ministers of DPSA on the relatively minor issue of wage negotiations.

    In some cases, there is rarely a desire even in the longer term for uniform government competence. E.g. Big business would prefer government not to ever be too competent in developing and enforcing price regulation if that means cutting into their rents from anticompetitive behaviour (banks and pharmaceuticals anyone?).

    So I agree with you, but there are reasons why things have developed as they have and these remain serious obstacles.

    [I've sent-in an op-ed which makes these arguments in a little more detail and i'll post a link if it gets published, or the text if it doesn't.]