Musical chairs

What stands in the way of building a professional public service?

by Kris Dobie | Published on 25 October 2019 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

Discussions of ethical challenges in the public sector frequently lead to discussions of the ‘political-administrative interface’, which seems to be a euphemism for political interference in the bureaucratic systems of government. To which the solution is just as frequently given that we need a ‘more professional’ public sector.

Musical chairs

Image source: Financial Times

Building a values-driven public service is impossible in a ‘musical chairs’ scenario where the

average time in office of a director-general is 22 months. 

On the surface it may seem that we can just appeal to public servants to be better – more professional, more ethical – and rest comfortably hoping that rhetoric will translate into change. Yet this strategy misses the deeper problems that are enabling the unprofessional and unethical practices in the first place.

One of the main problems that is preventing the country from realising its hopes for a more professional public sector lies in how senior public servants are appointed – or more accurately, who appoints them. Consider the following: directors-general for national departments are appointed by the president, and heads of provincial departments by the premiers, while ministers and MECs are responsible for deputy directors-general in their departments. So, currently, the power for these important administrative appointments lies squarely with politicians.

Why is this a problem? Because it allows for political aims to take precedence over service delivery considerations. Politicians who are not concerned about service delivery will not hesitate to ‘shuffle’ around the administrators over whom they have authority as many times as they want.

In an environment like South Africa’s, where politics is factional and frequently used for patronage purposes, this ongoing shuffling has led to serious instability in the upper echelons of the public sector. A report by the Institute of Race Relations found that, between 2009 and 2017, President Zuma made 126 changes to his national executive (which consisted of 74 ministers and deputy ministers at its largest). New ministers frequently come with their own people and want to make changes to the leadership structure in their departments. Consequently, during those approximately eight years, a remarkable 172 people held the position of director-general in the 38 departments, which means that, on average, directors-general only served 22 for months. That’s less than two years, and its an average calculation, so there will be departments where that duration is significantly shorter.

If we work from the understanding that the ethical culture of an organisation is built by its leadership, as one will find in most research on the topic, we can understand that such instability will have almost predictable consequences, and indeed anybody who has worked at an organisation where senior staff come and go regularly will have experienced what those are. Without stable leadership, governance systems will invariably be immature and unstable, becoming open to abuse. We will see more of the wrong people being appointed for the wrong reasons. We will see heightened levels of corruption. We will see good public servants becoming frustrated and leaving. A professional values system simply cannot become embedded in such conditions. And, consequently, we will see a decline in the levels of service delivery.

We could redirect our appeal for better behaviour from the public servants to the politicians, and instead ask them to consider the impact of this instability. Again, though, in reality there will still be deeper political pressures on them to abuse the system for patronage purposes.

So, what needs to change? The system for appointments.

It is important to point out that the system of politicians being responsible for senior public servants’ appointments has its historical reasons. In post-apartheid South Africa, especially in the transition phase, it was necessary to give politicians this power to ensure that they could transform the civil service into something more reflective of the ideals of the democratic government, and more representative of the demographics of the country. The Public Service Commission has however published numerous reports arguing that those purposes have now been attained, and that we now need to move to a system that will lead to greater professionalism of the public sector. Only by significantly de-politicising the system can we attain the level of professionalism that is required for the public service to support a developmental state.

Fortunately, we do not need to look far for solutions.

The National Development Plan sets out a ‘hybrid’ approach for appointments that involves both administrative and political role-players. It firstly recommends an administrative head of the public service that will, among other things, manage the career progression of heads of department. It then recommends that this administrative head, together with the chair of the Public Service Commission, convene a selection panel. The panel compiles a shortlist from which the political head can choose their preferred candidate. In other words, the politician still has authority to choose the final candidate, but it is a broader panel of experts who define the list of people the politician can choose from. The method should ensure suitably qualified people, while at the same time leaving some discretion with the political principals to choose who they want to work with.

Unfortunately, in the seven years since the launch of the National Development Plan, this proposal is no closer to implementation. Cynics point out that it is dependent on politicians to implement and parties are not likely to push for changes that limit their own powers. Yet there has recently been a resurgence of the theme. At a recent Public Service Commission dialogue on building a values-driven public sector, it emerged prominently. There is also significant movement within civil society, with the Public Affairs Research Institute promoting discussions on state reform that would, among other things, address this challenge.

Fixing these clear shortcomings in the appointment process seems a no-brainer. It would go some way to ensuring that the so-called ‘political-administrative interface’ isn’t such fertile ground for nefarious political interference. Stable, ethical and credible leadership is one of the building blocks of a values-driven public sector. We either fix this urgently, or we continue to spend an enormous amount of energy and resources trying to micro-manage the damage it continues to cause.

Kris Circle


Kris Dobie is Senior Manager: Organisational Ethics Development at The Ethics Institute. He holds a Master of Workplace Ethics from the University of Pretoria.