Learning from global experiences: transforming public administration through senior civil service reforms

By on 04/07/2023 | Updated on 04/07/2023
Union Buildings, Pretoria, South Africa.
Union Buildings, Pretoria. Photo by Hühnerauge via Flickr under CC license

A review of international best practice by the New South Institute reveals a number of key principles countries need to follow to improve the work of their governments

The challenge South Africa faces in professionalising its civil service is not unique, but rather a common problem faced by emerging democracies around the world. At the heart of any thriving democracy lies an effective and professional civil service, one that is driven by merit and insulated from undue political influence. Achieving this balance between meritocracy and democratic governance in civil service management is critical.

Read more: The senior civil service in Britain: what it is, who is in it, and how it has changed

Let’s take a look at Chile, which faced similar challenges but managed to overcome them by implementing the Sistema de Alta Dirección Pública (SADP). This system emphasised merit-based open competitions for high-level positions, which promoted effective policy implementation. Similarly, South Korea introduced its Senior Civil Service (SCS) in 2006, which uses a rigorous assessment process and merit-based compensation to attract top talent from different sectors.

Meanwhile, Peru’s Cuerpo de Gerentes Públicos (CGP) focuses on recruiting and developing highly qualified professionals for strategic management roles in public administration. A similar approach has been taken in Portugal, where an independent commission known as CReSAP (Comissão de Recrutamento e Seleção para a Administração Pública) ensures transparency, impartiality, and rigor in the recruitment of candidates for senior civil service positions.

In Eastern Europe, Estonia’s Centre for Excellence for Top Civil Servants, initially an informal network of senior managers, has formalised the recruitment, selection, and development of senior civil servants. Similarly, Kazakhstan established Corps A, a merit-based group of senior civil servants, in 2013 to improve policy implementation by developing a skilled cadre of managers.

In Africa, Côte d’Ivoire’s Mission Cadre Dirigeants programme, in partnership with Sciences Po, recruits and trains senior leaders to work on strategic and priority programmes. In Asia, Indonesia’s Jabatan Pimpinan Tinggi (JPT) system, overseen by the Public Service Agency (KASN), aims to develop a professional and ethical cohort of public service leaders.

There are valuable lessons that countries such as South Africa can learn from. One such lesson is the importance of adopting a merit-based selection process to ensure that qualified professionals drive the effective implementation of public policies. It’s also crucial to establish a dedicated institutional framework to oversee the recruitment, selection and development of senior civil servants. This not only ensures impartiality and transparency, but also helps promote professionalism within the civil service.

Private sector participation should be encouraged to promote innovation and diverse perspectives in public administration. In addition, continuous development and capacity building should be prioritised to keep senior civil servants up to date with the latest knowledge, skills and best practices.

Steps for reform in South Africa

The government in South Africa is examining plans to reform its civil service, with current proposals covering a reinvigorated Public Service Commission to vet applications, together with a National School of Government to provide a suitable pipeline of candidates.

Read more: Political influence or merit-based appointments? How South Africa can resolve the tension over top public service jobs

These international examples illutrate that, in order to implement a senior civil service system in South Africa, it is essential to address the political economy challenges. Building consensus among key stakeholders through dialogue and consultation will be critical to communicating the benefits of reform. Capacity building should be emphasised, and partnerships with international organisations, academic institutions, and countries with successful senior civil service systems can be instrumental in achieving this.

A system of checks and balances plays an important role in maintaining political accountability while preserving meritocracy. For example, establishing an independent commission to oversee recruitment and promotion processes can help prevent political interference and ensure fairness. At the same time, mechanisms must be in place for elected officials to oversee and hold senior civil servants accountable for their actions without micromanaging or compromising their independence. This balance between political oversight and administrative autonomy is essential to fostering a professional civil service that is responsive to citizens’ needs and committed to implementing effective public policies.

When involving the private sector in public administration, it is crucial to have clear regulations, ethical guidelines and conflict of interest policies in place to prevent corruption and undue influence. Promoting transparency and openness in decision-making processes will also help to develop accountability and trust between government, civil servants and the public.

In conclusion, international experiences offer valuable insights for South Africa as it seeks to professionalise its senior civil service. It is important to recognise that each country must develop tailored solutions to address its unique socio-political and economic realities. However, looking at the experiences of other countries can provide South Africa with a sense of perspective, demonstrating that its challenges are not insurmountable and that many nations are grappling with similar issues in their quest to improve public administration.

By learning from these global experiences, South Africa can identify best practices and adapt them to its own context. Successfully addressing the underlying challenges while establishing a robust system of checks and balances will be critical to creating a meritocratic and accountable civil service capable of driving the country’s growth and development. Ultimately, embracing a spirit of international cooperation and knowledge sharing will enable South Africa to overcome its challenges and build a more effective and efficient public service that is responsive to the needs of its citizens.

Rafael Leite is a research associate at the New South Institute.

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About Rafael Leite

Rafael Leite is a research associate at the New South Institute, a think-tank working on government and public action to strengthen delicate democracies by building effective and accountable institutions.

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