An honest, competent and independent civil service is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic system of government. Openness, equal opportunity and transparency in hiring and promoting civil servants are the hallmarks of a robust human resources strategy in the public service.

Defining the criteria, procedures and institutional framework by law is an essential precondition for transparent and fair selection and promotion procedures. Yet, occasionally, reports emerge of corrupt practices or irregularities in the recruitment and promotion of senior public service officials despite adequate legal, procedural and institutional frameworks that should ensure good governance in the management of human resources.

This newspaper has just reported on the findings of an investigation by the Ombudsman after receiving a complaint following an examination for the appointment of senior principals in the civil service a few days before the last election. The Ombudsman found that when the results were already out and the number of the candidates who had reached the set 70 per cent pass mark was determined, the Public Service Commission accepted a request by the Office of the Prime Minister to lower the pass mark to 65 per cent. Thus, another 49 candidates, who had not reached the originally-set pass mark, were added to the interview list together with the names of the 87 who had obtained the 70 per cent threshold.

When the Ombudsman asked for a justification of the commission’s decision, he was told this was done because “the number of applicants who achieved the 70 per cent pass mark (in the written test) was insufficient to address the exigencies across the public service”. The Ombudsman rightly concluded that the intervention to change the pass mark after the examination process had already started was not on because it discriminated against those who were successful in the original general ability test.

The Director of Information insists that the change in the pass mark was justified and in line with a sectoral agreement between the government and civil service trade unions.

The Ombudsman was understandably not convinced by the official stand taken by the Office of the Prime Minister.

Sectoral agreement or not, the classical justification of ‘exigencies of service’ often invoked by those not fully committed to complete transparency in public governance, has brought about the systemic failure of the checks and balances aimed to curb abuse of power by politicians.

Some politicians will try to get away with committing corrupt practices in the recruitment and promoting of public officials through political patronage, nepotism and cronyism. They often succeed when the management and oversight of public administration are weak. The situation gets even worse when the Ombudsman’s advice is ignored by the government and those who fail in their duty to prevent the abuse of power by politicians justify their weak decisions with unconvincing arguments.

Political patronage devalues the public service as it promotes a feudal mentality that undermines the relationship between political masters and public officials who should be in the service of the whole community. It also accentuates divisions in a society where those with political connections get an unfair advantage over those who do not have such connections.

Regulators and those with responsibility for overseeing the public governance processes should use their autonomy and independence of thought to protect the interests of all citizens.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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