Challenges of human resource management in the African public service

Dr. Roland Msiska News & Analysis Public Administration & Governance

The scope of the public service in Africa has changed since the countries gained independence in terms of size and complexity of services provided. Public services are now provided to populations which are much larger, more demanding and increasingly more informed about their rights and obligations. Human resources management in the public service today has the more challenging task of ensuring that employee performance meets the complex expectations of the growing and informed populations, as well as political leaders.

This article discusses the challenges of human resource management in the public service and measures that African governments can take to develop capacity in public services, promote innovation and improve performance evaluation for enhanced public services for their citizens.

Human resource management in the public service

Human resource management has been defined as a strategic and coherent approach to the management of an organization’s most valued assets – the people working there who individually and collectively contribute to the achievement of its objectives1. Effective human resource management operates through a system that brings together the following:

• Overarching values and guiding principles adopted in managing people;
• Strategies defining the direction in which human resources management intends to go;
• Human resources policies defining how these values, principles and the strategies should be applied and implemented in specific areas;
• Processes consisting of the formal procedures and methods; and
• Human resource programmes that enable strategies, policies and practices to be implemented according to plan.

The overall purpose of human resource management is to ensure that the organization is able to achieve success through its people.

The framework for human resource management in most African Public Services is enshrined in the respective countries’ constitutions and in Services Commissions Acts that provide the institutional arrangements and regulations for the administering and managing of the public service. In some cases, these laws contain the values and principles adopted to manage employees in the public service.

The Service Commissions are independent bodies charged with the responsibility for human resource management in the public service. This is intended to ensure that the merit principle is observed in public appointments and promotions and that the civil service is protected from patronage and unsuitable or unlawful political interference.

Historical perspective

To appreciate the challenges facing human resource management in the public service and the measures that African governments should put in place to develop capacity, promote innovation and improve performance evaluation in the public service, it is important to adopt a historical perspective to assess how human resource management systems in the public service have evolved over time.

The practice of service commissions can be traced to the United Kingdom, where the first Civil Service Commission was established in the mid-19th century. Matheson (2007) observes that the civil service of that time was small, and recruitment was mainly done through patronage, based on personal recommendation from highly-placed patrons. Over time, the limitations of such a system became increasingly apparent. As the Industrial Revolution advanced, the tasks required of government expanded, the electorate broadened and the middle class began to demand more open access to civil service jobs and better performance. After a faltering start and following a succession of critical reports by the commissioners on the fitness of candidates, in 1870, the Cabinet approved competitive examinations for entrance into the civil service, and promotion thereafter on merit.

Similar commissions were established in Australia, Canada and New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and civil service commissions were established in other British-ruled territories in the period immediately preceding independence in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in Africa. For many British colonies, the constitutional entrenchment of the commissions was deeper, and their authority significantly larger than in the United Kingdom, as part of a deliberate attempt to prevent a return to patronage within the newly independent countries2. Most African countries have continued with the human resources management systems and structures that they inherited at independence.

As the years went by, African countries implemented reforms to curb personnel growth, stabilize or reduce the wage bill, restructure ministries, decentralize functions, strengthen economic planning instruments, improve the control of expenditures, manage national debt and implement personnel training. Despite these reforms, the human resource management systems have largely remained unchanged and over-centralized. In most cases, the role of the Management Development Institutions charged with the responsibility of capacity development in the Public Service changed as they became commercialized to provide services to the private sector as a mechanism for financial sustainability. Increasingly, the public service has been criticized for not being responsive to the needs of its population.

Challenges of human resource management in the public service

In its effort to transform the continent, the African Union has adopted the Agenda 2063, the vision of which is “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena”.

To achieve this vision, African Public Services will need to address a number of challenges, which include the following:

• Government Ministries and Departments perform only a transactional as opposed to a strategic role in human resource management due to over-centralized decision-making systems at Service Commissions;
• Serious delays in processing of personnel matters from service delivery points to Service Commissions and vice versa due to the lengthy and multiple levels and points involved, some of which do not add value;
• Inertia in handling human resource matters due to inadequate sense of accountability by Chief Executive Officers in Government Ministries and Departments;
• Poor work culture, discipline, and employee motivation as well as inadequate professionalism due to the fact that the final decisions are the mandate of Service Commissions, which in most cases take months or even years to be communicated;
• Weak performance management systems not linked to national visions and development goals;
• Absence of customized competence-based training for public service employees; and
• Politicization of appointments to public service positions.

Measures for African Governments in improving the performance of the public service

African Public Services can learn from the best-performing public services across the globe and the continent and adapt the best practices into measures that can be implemented to develop capacity, promote innovation and improve performance evaluation in the public service5. A review of good practices from the best-performing public services such as those implemented in Singapore, United Kingdom and New Zealand shows that these systems have the following attributes:

• A strong regulatory framework: the public services commissions (or equivalent) have transformed their roles to perform more of a regulatory than transactional function that ensures values and merit principles are upheld in the human resource management;
• The powers and functions of human resource management for middle- and low-level public servants are delegated to Government Ministries and Departments;
• The human resource management values and merit principles are enshrined in the law. This ensures strict compliance and promotes a high standard of professional ethics for Public Officers;
• They feature Functional Schools of Government that provide continuous capacity and professional development and build a results-based culture for the public service;
• Pay is linked to institutional and individual performances;
• Their service delivery systems are citizen-focused; and
• They offer performance-based contracts for senior-level public service officers.

In the same way, a number of lessons can also be drawn from good practices from the Public Service in Africa. Examples abound in Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Zambia.


In Kenya, the Government introduced performance contracts in management of the Public Service (State Corporations, Government Ministries and Departments) in 2004. The overriding objective is to free managers from unproductive and uncoordinated activities so that they can focus on what really matters: the results6. The performance contracts are linked to the overall National Vision 2030 and the Medium Term Plan. The evaluation framework takes into consideration the Citizen Service Delivery Charters7. Using this tool, the Public Service has promoted innovation and a results-based culture. The Kenya School of Government has also played a critical role in ensuring that the performance culture is sustained through continuous professional development.


Ghana’s Public Services Commission is established under the Constitution to operate independently in the performance of its functions. The main role of the Commission is to regulate and provide oversight in appointments and other human resource management processes in the public service. Although the human resource management function has been delegated to the Services, the Commission is directly involved in the recruitment and appointment of the top three layers of officers (Chief Director, Director and Deputy Director) in Public Institutions. The Commission is consulted by Governing Councils for the various services on recruitment and appointments.

The Ghana Public Services Commission has recently reviewed its human resource management policy framework and manual with a view to creating a service which emphasizes a merit- and performance-based culture with citizen orientation.

South Africa

South Africa’s Public Service Commission functions more as a regulatory body empowered with the task of investigating, monitoring and evaluating the organization, administration and personnel practices of the Public Service, in particular adherence to the values and principles set out in Section 195 of the Constitution and the public service procedures. Its primary objective is to promote measures that ensure effective and efficient performance within the Public Service and to promote values and principles of public administration as set out in the Constitution, throughout the Public Service.


In the case of Zambia, the Government has instituted comprehensive human resource management reforms aimed at restoring confidence in the Public Service by strengthening the governance and oversight structure, introducing a merit- and progression-based system for appointments and promotions to all public service positions, and delegating the human resources function to lower levels.

The Public Service in Zambia has also adopted and implemented an integrated competitive remuneration strategy which seeks to achieve the “equal pay for equal work” principle over a 10-year period. A comprehensive job evaluation and regrading exercise has been undertaken and implemented as the initial step, with the application of a single spine salary structure11. The implementation of this strategy has made the Public Service more competitive in terms of pay, thus attracting more talent from the private sector.

Arising from these good practices identified from the best-performing public services, African governments should consider implementing the following measures to develop capacity in public services, promote innovation and improve performance evaluation for enhanced public services to their citizens:

• Strengthen the governance structure and systems for human resource management in the Public Service and redefine the mandate of the Services Commission to encourage them to focus more on their regulatory role;
• Empower Government Ministries and Departments by delegating human resource management powers and functions from the Services Commissions and facilitate timely decisions;
• Strengthen compliance by enshrining human resource management values and merit principles in laws;
• Adopt appropriate pay and incentive schemes for the Public Service;
• Revamp and/or establish Schools of Government to implement continuous customized capacity development programmes for public service employees to create and sustain the desired culture in the Public Service; and
• Adopt results-based performance management systems that are linked to the respective nation’s visions and development goals.


African governments can draw lessons from good practices across the continent and globe, developing contextualized measures to build capacity in public services, promote innovation, and improve performance evaluation for enhanced public services to their citizens. The few examples of good practices discussed in this article are all aimed at achieving a human resource management system that promotes professionalism, timely decision-making, improved work culture, innovation and quality service delivery to the citizens.

Written by

Dr. Roland Msiska is currently Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of Public Service for Zambia. Prior to his appointment in 2012, he served as Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet responsible for Civil Service Reforms, a post that was preceded by the role of Permanent Secretary for the Public Service Management Division. He was elected President of the Association of African Public Administration and Management for the next three years during the 37th Roundtable Conference held in Rabat Morocco in March 2015.