Implementing Affirmative Action In Public Services: Comparative Administrative Practice

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The result of implementing affirmative action in public service can be evaluated for (a)the preferred groups that were intended to benefit from the policy, and (b)the public service, which is the arena for its implementation. The first evaluation, an area of concern to those working in social development, could cover large scale and targeted surveys of attitudes towards preferred groups, and examine issues such as preferred groups’ economic conditions before and after implementation, other social indicators, and the distribution of benefits. The latter evaluation, which is of interest to those working in public sector management and the present study asks: What have been the effects of affirmative action on public service performance? In the four country practices reviewed, where was there any attempt to evaluate if public organizations’ performance—whether service delivery or policy-making—had changed in any way as a result of artificially changing the demographics of the work force?

Affirmative action and public service performance

This study could not locate any systematic evaluation of the impact on affirmative action on public service performance, either within the case studies of the four selected countries or outside them.
Positive outcomes of affirmative action were reported in the Indian and South African public service. Good effects included greater sincerity of purpose among officials who implement government-funded programs designed to benefit the preferred groups in the population at large. In India, fewer instances of corruption were reported of officials trying to extort money from beneficiaries belonging to disadvantaged groups. In South Africa, affirmative action has resulted in an increasing number of public servants that are able to communicate in the variety of languages spoken and significant increase in the number of public servants who have a greater understanding of the needs of the sections of communities who were neglected under apartheid.
Negative results were also reported. One Malaysian research, focusing only on public enterprises, found that performance was poor where senior personnel, including seconded PTD officers, have been overwhelmingly Malay. Flawed investment decisions and little effective supervision and oversight was reported in central enterprises staffed by PTD. Responses to surveys in Malaysia showed the prevalent perception of preference to non-Malays in public service career advancement deterred non-Malays from entering public service. The Nigerian report noted a decline in the quality of the public service since the 1980s but there was no evidence of its being the fallout of applying the federal character principle. Both the Malaysian and South African case studies highlighted significant numbers of managers and professionals from excluded groups leaving the public service, either for private sector jobs within the country or to seek opportunities abroad. However, no empirically robust connection was established between this large-scale exit and any glass ceiling experienced by non-preferred groups. Research in South Africa found that women appointed to top positions perceived being marginalized by their male colleagues.

Does affirmative action dilute the merit principle in pubic service?

This investigation attempted to find if any conflict between the two principles—affirmative action and merit principle—was confronted in any of the four public services. Was the risk of dilution of merit principle ignored, or acknowledged but accepted as small compared with the benefits?
In India, the issue was raised before Supreme Court in Devadasan Vs. Union of India (1985), K.C.Vasanthkumar Vs. State of Karnataka (SC 1985), and Comptroller and Auditor General Vs. Jagannatahn (SC 1987). Following Supreme Court’s warning about compromising the merit principle, government amended the constitution to allow preferences even if it conflicted with the merit principle. Currently, general administrative and managerial positions are amenable to preferences, but highly specialized technical positions (in medicine, engineering, electronics, and nuclear and space applications) are exempt from reservations.

Expanding scope of affirmative action

Has affirmative action been restricted to recruitment or extended to promotion? Does a member of a preferred group need assistance only to overcome the barrier to entry, and then encounter a level playing field? Does (s)he quickly acquire the attributes necessary to advance competitively within the public service, or need assistance to cross the hurdles of promotion? In all four public services, affirmative action extends beyond recruitment into promotion. Preference in promotion ranges from a legal basis, in India, to unstated practice in Malaysia and South Africa, to contradicting guidelines in Nigeria.
India’s Supreme Court had ruled that reservation could not extend beyond recruitment to promotion. The constitution was amended (85th amendment); and central government extended preference for SC and ST employees to promotion to all positions having annual base pay up to Rs. 18300 (approximately US $ 4900). A 2002 circular directed that SC and ST employees would supercede general category employees in the seniority list for promotion posts.
Preference in promotion is not directly stated in Malaysia. According to formal rules, preference to Malays applies only to recruitment. In practice, affirmative actions have been reported in promotion. Observers cite that comparing across levels within the public service, there are proportionately much fewer non-Malays in super scale positions than at lower levels. The elite PADS is also comprised of Malays.
In South Africa, the merit principle is applicable except at the two topmost positions in senior management: Director-General and Deputy Director-General. Persons appointed to these two positions are regarded as political appointees and, unlike career senior civil servants, they do not enjoy security of tenure. For other managerial appointments, merit principle carries more weight than it does at lower levels. This translates to appointing the best affirmative action candidate rather than the best candidate overall.
Preference in promotion is contrary to guidelines in Nigeria, but nevertheless practiced. The Civil Service (Re-organization) Decree 43 of 1988 directed positions in non-managerial levels (grades 07 to10) would be filled according to federal character principle. At grades 11 and above, promotion would be based on merit. Although FCC continues to maintain these guidelines, there were many recent transfers from state civil services to grade 11 positions and higher in federal civil service without regard to the merit-oriented principles set out in the 1988 Decree. Although such transfers from states to the federal civil service have slowed down in recent years, promotions to grade 11 and above is still perceived to depend on proportional representation in federal civil service than on merit or seniority. The armed forces’ high command recently testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Federal Character, opposing the application of the federal character principle beyond the point of entry or recruitment into the officer corps.
The need for extending affirmative action beyond the point of entry points to preferred groups reflects their need support for career advancement beyond the preference at entry. However, this study could not find—either within the case studies or outside them—any special training or mentoring programs designed for entrants from the preferred groups that could fast-track their technical expertise or enhancement of managerial skills aside from training available to all members of higher services.

Continuation of a temporary measure

Although three of the four countries (India, Malaysia and South Africa) have considered the exit option of affirmative action in public service, none of them has taken any step toward ending its implementation. Most politicians believe that terminating affirmative action will lose the votes of those benefiting from it. Therefore the %age of the electorate benefiting from affirmative action can determine the continuation of affirmative action in public service. Reservation for SC and ST was considered a temporary measure in India’s first constitutions, but that constitutional provision has been extended repeatedly, until the last instance in 1998. Extension of job reservation to India’s private and voluntary sector has also been discussed. In Malaysia, affirmative action originally had a 20-year life span beginning in 1970, but continues until the present time. In the Nigerian case, there is no official mention of an expiry date for the federal character principle; therefore, it appears destined to last for the foreseeable future.

In South Africa, ANC leaders have debated the continuation of affirmative action in public service: there are opinions for and against.

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