The court’s decision to give back the process of selecting public officials to the Public Service Commission and not a ministerial committee is sound, says PAUL BARKER
Upon Independence it was recognised that, as a new nation state, Papua New Guinea had to work hard to build up national unity, and bring equitable opportunities across the country, including to the least advantaged and most remote provinces and districts.
It was recognised that this could only be achieved through stimulating the economy, broadening household incomes and gaining sound and substantial revenue for the State to be able to upgrade infrastructure, and support access to quality education and training and health services across the country.
It was recognised that, to achieve this, particularly when offloading experienced overseas staff, there’d need to be investment in a quality and well managed public service with the skills required to manage and provide education, health, law and order and agricultural services, as well as delivering the engineering feats and driving and maintaining the plant and equipment needed by this challenging country.
It was recognised that with colleges and universities only commencing in the mid-1960s there was much rapid work to do, and that the country required a quality public service that would entail professionals being posted to all parts of the country, and developing their skills at the provincial and rural level before being posted to urban centres or the capital.
Citizens in provincial towns and rural areas, expected quality services, with skilled staff, such as teachers and health workers, plus the best available public sector managers, originating from anywhere in the country or beyond; they didn’t just expect managers to come from the local area, especially if they knew these people may not have the required skills, experience or motivation.
Yet, the pressure in politics in PNG is to demand rewards for support during elections, including expecting positions on boards or management of State-owned enterprises, as public service managers or staff or gaining works or supply contracts, export permits or as council officials, regardless of the skills on offer.
The public service calibre started being eroded with the weakening of the single line public service and its management system in the early 1980s, when ministers were granted greater authority to make their own selection of their departmental heads.
State-owned enterprises also saw boards and management positions being stacked with political appointees, weakening the level of merit and performance of these critical and often monopolistic state corporations.
This erosion of public sector performance continued through the 1990s, despite some efforts to restrain it, such as by setting up statutory authorities (e.g. over fisheries, forestry and minerals or agricultural commodity corporations, or the hospital boards) entailing systems of checks and balances and removing the levels of discretion in decision-making by ministers or departmental heads.
This worked up to a point, but then ministers started stacking the boards with their cronies, or delaying appointments, or having extended acting appointment, either by changing the laws or simply avoiding the correct appointment processes.
In the early 2000s, the systems for appointing secretaries and heads of statutory authorities were tightened up, restoring and reinforcing the role of the Public Services Commission, and having systems where, with statutory authorities, advertising would be required in the case of vacancies, vetting by the Public Services Commission, and with boards or professional entities providing their preferred shortlist of candidates, before being forward to the respective minister to take it to cabinet.
The minister could refer the names back for reconsideration, but had no discretion to select or substitute his own candidate or rejection in isolation.
There was certainly frustration in some quarters that the PSC sometimes delayed the selection and appointment process unduly, or pursued its own agenda, and needed some checks on its powers/time allowed as well, but it was widely felt that surreptitious efforts by some politicians or their associates to bypass due process and make their own appointments of their selected candidate, often knowing that person’s limited professional capacity, needed to be restrained.
The 2014 Amendment was widely criticised as placing undue control of the public service machinery in political hands, and undermining the merit-based public service selection process needed to encourage and develop a professional and non-politicised public service.
Of course, one cannot entirely remove politics from the process, but the political role is to determine policies, laws and systems and provide oversight, both as the executive and the Legislature, including through parliamentary committees, such as the Public Accounts Committee.
Unduly interfering in the workings, including selection or dismissal process, as opposed to ensuring that the process is well designed and accountable, undermines a credible and merit-based public sector.
The Court’s decision to revert to the former system of PSC participation in the selection process, rather than a ministerial committee, is sound, as well as clearly required under the Constitution, but ensuring that the PSC performs efficiently and accountably itself, and avoids wantokism or undue delays in appointments, may require further oversight and review.
At the end of the day, the shared objective must be to enable PNG to gain a professional and accountable public service that meets the needs of the citizens of this country, that follows and applies the policies of the Government and the subnational governments, but is not selected or working to serve personal political objectives, including during election periods, when public servants also widely have to perform electoral duties, which need to be conducted independently of vested political interests.
- Paul Barker is the Institute of National Affairs director