By MARY ANN “MANJA” BAYANG
A formal definition of patronage is “the power of appointing people to governmental or political positions” and “the positions so distributed” (Webster’s II New College Dictionary, 1995). The word patronage, as used in politics, has a negative implication that this simple definition fails to convey. Patronage suggests going beyond the real or perceived boundaries of legitimate political influence, and violating the principles of merit and competition in civil service recruitment and promotion.
Nonetheless, we must recognize that governments the world over accept that some political appointments are fully legitimate. A small number of these appointments are justified as a means for political leaders to fashion a circle of government policymakers and managers who share a common agenda. Patronage is clearly a problem, however, when a big number of such appointments pervade public administration, which severely undermine merit principles. Somewhere between these two extremes, the line between appropriate and inappropriate uses of patronage is crossed.
A distinction between the concepts of policymaking and implementation holds that politicians and their immediate appointees should make decisions concerning political priorities, whereas politically neutral and professional staff use their skills and experience to implement those policies. Optimally, such an arrangement allows public administration to remain sensitive to political goals, yet protected from political meddling in its day-to-day functioning.
However, merit and competition are undermined – and arguably civil service performance, as well – when unqualified individuals are hired or promoted to posts unsuited to them. This harms morale, as regular rank and file staff see others disregarding rules or receiving special treatment, while their own prospects for advancement based on merit and competition appear dim.
Finally, widespread staff changes due to shifts in political power have a crippling effect on institutional memory, which in turn likely weakens performance.
Although the dangers of pervasive patronage are generally known, it is much less clear where the line between political and regular posts should be drawn. Some measures exist. The most common is the ratio of political appointees to the size of the civil service. Another way to assess and control patronage is through periodic data on turnover rates, provided by a personnel information system. Still, there is no clear cut-off point beyond which patronage is plainly illegitimate.
The practice of political appointments in various countries has evolved over time, as conditions and mindsets changed.
In the U.S., for example, the distinction between political appointees and civil servants selected on merit was first established in the Pendleton Act of 1883. This was the first in a sequence of steps over the next 40 years to establish a stable, professional government workforce. Prior to 1883, all public administration posts in the U.S. were subject to a “democratic” spoils system.
In the United Kingdom, the transition to apolitical civil service began somewhat earlier, with the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854.
Alternative politics face the challenge to institute policies that protect the administration from the potential abuses of patronage, while not attempting to ban all political appointments. Indeed, the lack of explicit provisions for political appointments can itself cause problems: when there are no transparent mechanisms to delineate bet-ween political versus non-political appointments, the risk is that every position de facto becomes subject to political influence.
This is particularly true in countries that underwent long periods of intense politicization, such as the former socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe. Political appointments are often an essential (and legitimate?) instrument to craft and maintain a multi-party and/or multi-ethnic governing coalition. Several countries use hybrid appointment methods to satisfy a political logic without abandoning merit-based principles that govern public administration.
If it continues unimpeded, patronage politics can create an autocratic empire in a government where the source of power controls every aspect of governance. This dreadful situation is what alternative politics seek to prevent. #