Implementing Affirmative Action In Public Services: Comparative Administrative Practice

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Affirmative action means special consideration for disadvantaged groups in publicly funded opportunities. The purpose is to level the playing field as the groups preferred are often those that have discriminated against in the past. Many governments around the world have affirmative action policies in public service composition, in publicly provided education and in government contracting decisions.

This report focuses on the implementation of affirmative action in only one of these areas — the public service, which is a critical arena for its execution. Being a government’s ‘face’ to its citizens, the public service is a vital ground for governments to demonstrate their commitment to affirmative action, and for citizens to check if the ‘face’ of the public service reflects the community that pays the salaries of the officials and uses services they provide. This investigation focused on how government policies on affirmative action in public service are converted into personnel management rules and practices. The specific objectives of the study were to check what composition of public service was sought to be achieved via affirmative action; examine patterns in implementation; review monitoring methods; and observe any discernible effects that preference might have on public service performance.


Affirmative action in public service has implications for its size and shape. Recruitment quotas are a common method of implementing preference in personnel management. Having such quotas brings forth the need to fill them even while the government attempts to control the overall size of its workforce, thus exerting upward pressure on the wage bill. Knowing that there are quotas to be filled raises the probability of patronage appointments. Affirmative action aims to alter public organizations’ demographics by increasing proportion of targeted groups. But the same lack of opportunity which caused under-representation of the disadvantaged group(s) also makes desired skills scarce in those preferred groups. So, recruitment quotas tend to become filled at lower levels of public service but under-filled at technical and managerial levels. This can run counter to governments’ attempts to shape a more professional civil service.
Observing the effects of affirmative action can provide useful guidance on what contributes to public organizations’ performance. For example, increasing functional diversity, merit-based selection and employees’ morale are all supposed to improve organizational performance. Through increasing social diversity, affirmative action also promotes functional diversity (Schneider and Northcraft, 1999). So, the performance of organizations implementing affirmative action should improve over time. On the other hand, merit-based selection is considered an essential feature of a good public service. If officials are selected according to social attributes instead of merit, then performance of organizations that implement affirmative action should deteriorate over time. If career development is based on considerations other than merit, it could lower the morale of general employees. By this argument, lowered morale of the larger population of general employees in a public organization that implements affirmative action should negatively affect that organizations’ performance.
Implementation success of affirmative action can help understand which institutional reforms are likely to succeed or fail in that particular administrative tradition. For example, developing countries that implement affirmative action in public service have often emerged from colonialism with Western state forms, but with societies deeply divided along tribal lines. They resemble the Napoleonic state where nation-building has focused on overcoming deep divisions in civil society. Recognizing this pattern could help identify their unified administrative structure, and potential resistance to political decentralization1.
Affirmative action’s implementation experience can provide insight on how staff incentives can challenge project implementation. Officials often resist reforms when they perceive that their current status quo will be disturbed or benefits will be eroded. For example, incorporating more women in the government’s workforce requires wider consideration of family-friendly policies and flexible schedules. Managers used to the old way and male employees who believe this will add to their workload may resent these changes. Increasing numbers from preferred ethnic groups could make existing dominant groups perceive that their preserve is threatened and lead them to resist the change. Understanding how these changes were managed during affirmative action can help implementation of other institutional reform strategies.


Implementation patterns were observed by examining the public services of India, Malaysia, Nigeria and South Africa through the lens of affirmative action. In each of these countries, job reservation in public service has generated much debate, both for and against. The populations, from which public employees are drawn, have significant divisions along ethnicity/race, religion, language, and social groups such as class and caste. Each has a strong tradition of public service (inherited from the same British colonial power) and a career in public service is well regarded. Government employment is associated with social prestige, so there is keen interest and scrutiny of how affirmative action is implemented in service. Malaysia, the smallest among these four countries, has a population of 25 million, while South Africa’s population is 45 million. Nigeria (135 million) and India (1.06 billion) are among the ten largest countries in the world. Studying this mix of moderate and large-sized countries allows a probing of some of the complexities of affirmative action. Furthermore, these countries allow a check of whether the practice of affirmative action has changed much with time. India has been implementing affirmative action policies longer than any other developing or transition country, beginning in 1935 during British colonial times, and subsequently provided for in its constitution after independence in 1947. South Africa’s experiment was launched in the mid-1990s. Malaysia and Nigeria launched their own affirmative action policies in-between the other two countries. Taken together, this group of countries provides a range of practices that allow general lessons to be drawn.


It is important to clarify what this study is not about. It did not focus on the theory or why of affirmative action although that background was useful to understand the forces sustaining affirmative action. Instead, it concentrated on what groups are preferred, and how governments implement their affirmative action policies. The aim was to identify, for each of the selected countries, groups that are meant to benefit from affirmative action, what targets were set, how each government converts its social policy into affirmative action, and check for similarities and differences in implementation and its effect on public services.
The subject was not how governments manage diversity in the workplace, a topic gaining importance in the personnel management of many developed countries. Affirmative action is different from diversity management. It involves legally driven government actions of hiring and promotion decisions, while diversity management is described as a managerial process for developing an environment that works for all employees (Thomas 1992). Publicly funded organizations are bound to implement affirmative action policies while diversity management is a good practice followed by both public and private organizations. For example, most of US’s largest companies have diversity directors or managers (Ospina 2001). Affirmative action is directed towards specific target groups with the objective of changing organizational demographics, while diversity management involves the different perspectives people bring due to race, workplace styles, disabilities, and other differences.
The word public service has been used to describe employees of organizations that are funded or controlled by government. It includes employees of central ministries and departments, state owned enterprises, and sub-national governments; and education and health professionals employed in government-funded organizations2. The scope of this study was widened beyond civil service to public service as most affirmative action policies apply not only to employees who enjoy civil service status, but to employment in all public organizations that receive budget support from the government. Notable exceptions to this general rule are the armed forces of India and the police in Malaysia. However, in keeping with World Bank policies, police and armed forces were outside the scope of this investigation. Recognizing that different levels of government may have different targets and methods of achieving them, this study concentrates on the practice of affirmative action at the national level, pointing out wherever possible any major departures from this practice at the sub-national level. The words central and federal have been used to mean national government, while both state and provincial denote the next level of government.
Race and ethnicity feature frequently and together in the discuss on affirmative action not only in the four selected countries, but worldwide. They mean different things. Race refers to a biological species, while both physical and cultural characteristics can be used to classify people into ethnic groups or categories. This report has ignored the distinction between race and ethnicity, and has used the terms interchangeably depending upon the tradition of the public service where it applied.

Organization of this report

The summary of findings contained in the next chapter is followed by the four individual case studies of India, Malaysia, Nigeria, and South Africa. These provide the context and details of how affirmative action is implemented in each of the four public services.
As part of the findings, the first section (A) examines which groups are preferred within each public service. What targets are set for representation of each group? Can different groups get different preferences? Comparing across public services, which is the most popular preference ? Section B describes implementation mechanisms, and particularly how each country has structured authority and responsibility to implement, and what support and tools are available. Monitoring and grievance redressal are summarized next in Section C. Finally, Section D checks the impact of affirmative action: to what extent have the objectives intended for the public sector been achieved?

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