Of meritocracy and public appointments

Even if politicians come clean about this system, and admit once and for all - without the pretence of autonomy - that top public posts have to be based on trust… there still exists the need to source competence

Appointing the top brass of public entities will always be a contentious matter, in a country where everyone knows everybody, and resources are scarce.

Ever since Independence, there have been countless promises by politicians to base such appointments on meritocracy.

From the Nationalist Party’s 1987 slogan, ‘Drittijiet Mhux Pjaċiri’ (Rights Not Favours), to the Labour Party’s 2013 rallying call ‘Tista’ Ma Taqbilx Magħna, Imma Tista’ Taħdem Magħna’ (‘You May Disagree With Us, But You Can Still Work With Us’), politicians are always the first to extol merit, transparency, and rights in the discharge of public functions.

Whether these lofty ideals have been put in practice is another matter altogether.

But if public appointments are one such area that remain contentious, it is partly because both parties have been allowed to get away with broken promises for too long.

Before 2013, it was the Labour Opposition accusing the Nationalist government of appointing its blue-eyed boys and girls to the chairmanship of regulatory bodies and public authorities; today it is the PN Opposition likewise complaining over the government’s choices in public appointments.

It really has become a puerile game, which neither party is ever willing to change when in government.

And just as, before, it was a group of people with PN leanings that took part in the musical chairs between authorities and public entities, today it is a different group of people with PL leanings.

In a two-party system where the pendulum has (until recently) swung fairly regularly, this suggests that political parties take the opportunity of political power to ‘right’ the unfair excess of the preceding administration.

Indeed, the present Labour government’s response to criticism is habitually to remind us of the cronyism under Nationalist government’s. And so, the same song keeps repeating itself like a broken record.

Nonetheless, the problem is difficult to eradicate for other reasons. Any government would want the electoral programme people voted for to be implemented and for this to happen it needs to have top public officials who understand and believe in the policy direction.

Former PN minister Austin Gatt had once argued that political appointments in top public jobs should not be scorned at, because any government will want people it can trust to implement its agenda in these key positions.

On its own, this is a simplistic argument. But there is a strong case to be made for a clear system of political appointments within government agencies and authorities.

Even if politicians come clean about this system, and admit once and for all - without the pretence of autonomy - that top public posts have to be based on trust… there still exists the need to source competence.

Government’s trust in any given appointee cannot take precedence over the person’s ability to perform the task at hand. Trust has to be accompanied by competence: something that has not always been the case, and is not always apparent.

This is why it makes sense for high profile appointments in government entities to at least be scrutinised by a parliamentary committee, even if the remit of the existing parliamentary committee should be widened to cover more entities.

In this way, even if government wants to appoint someone it can trust, the person will be scrutinised for his or her competence all the same.
But there is also the need for highly specialised authorities to start adopting institutional independence in the way they discharge their duties, especially when it comes to enforcement.

When such entities as the Ombudsman or the National Audit office repeatedly flag failings in their annual reports that keep repeating themselves, it becomes clear that, at a certain level, there is a breakdown between the supervisory process, and the enforcement capability.

This is unacceptable even at the best of times. It bears remembering, however, that Malta has been at the centre of intense international scrutiny over the past two years: much of it concerned precisely with good governance.

In a nutshell, this country needs to grow up. It has to finally come to grips with the demands of a functioning democracy, where governments are held accountable to taxpayers for money spent.

The issue should not be what this or that public official is earning – governments have to pay more to attract talent – but whether what is being paid will deliver value for money to the public.

So far, this has been absent from the debate.