Guest Post: To Combat Corruption, Argentina Must Insist on Meritocratic Hiring in the Civil Service

Today’s guest post is from Professor Ignacio A. Boulin Victoria of the Universidad Austral School of Law (Buenos Aires, Argentina) and Fulbright Scholar Eliana Kanefield.

Currently, over 3.9 million people work for the public sector in Argentina, constituting nearly 27% of Argentina’s workforce—the third-highest proportion in Latin America and the Caribbean (after only Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago), and well above the regional average of 18%. Working in the public sector in Argentina has substantial advantages, including strong employment security (it is extremely difficult to be fired from public sector positions in Argentina) and substantially higher salaries than comparable jobs in the private sector. It’s thus unsurprising that the competition for public sector jobs is fierce. To take just one example, when the Province of Mendoza created 114 new public sector positions, there were more than 30.000 applicants.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with the multitude of advantages public sector workers enjoy, this system gives rise to a structural problem: the system largely serves politicians’ friends and family. Officially, entry into the public sector is governed by a set of robust requirements and competitive examinations. But this is a façade. In reality, most people who get a job in the public sector do so because they have the right connections. They are usually friends, relatives, or members of the same political party of the person doing the hiring. An example of the clear disregard for the standards and systems in place is that, as of 2017, only 2% of senior management public sector employees had passed the “demanding” entry examinations and requirements designated by the government, and only 6% of these positions were filled through an open and fair recruitment procedure (compared to 90% in Chile). From 2015 to 2017, the proportion of senior public sector management positions filled by people who met the official professional requirements mandated by the job description decreased from 32% to 18%, while the proportion of these professionals who had education beyond a high school degree decreased from 72% to 66%. Admittedly, some of the public servants hired outside of the regular process do have the right qualifications, but even in those cases there’s still the inherent unfairness that potential applicants without connections don’t have the opportunity to compete for these jobs.

This failure of meritocracy worsens Argentina’s corruption problem, in three ways:

  • First, cronyism and nepotism undermines the political independence of the bureaucracy. The civil service, intended to be a neutral bulwark against partisan folly and corruption, becomes subjected to politician’s decisions. When job entry and security depend upon the choice of politicians, it is unlikely that workers will denounce corruption when they see it. Consider, for example, Argentina’s best known contemporary corruption scandal (dubbed The Notebooks, after the careful notes on payments maintained by one of the bagmen), in which an Undersecretary at the Minister of Planning took bribes from corporations to fix public procurement bids. Given the extent of the cover-up, it’s implausible that no civil servants knew what was going on. Rather, it’s likely that many public sector employees were aware of the wrongdoing but kept quiet either out of personal loyalty to the people who had placed them in their jobs, or out of fear that blowing the whistle would cost them their jobs.
  • Second, a politically subservient bureaucracy can be used as a political weapon by incumbent politicians to protect their grip on power. Political incumbents often require employees to “donate” a portion of their salaries to their campaigns, and votes are secured by threats of firing. This unfair political advantage in turn undercuts the electoral checks and balances that are crucial to restrict corruption.
  • Third, a bloated and inefficient public sector provides low-quality public services and in turn fosters “petty” corruption. Under a patronage system, politicians don’t have much interest in stamping out such corruption or improving the quality of public services, and the cronies hired through patronage networks likewise have little incentive to make the system more efficient or to eschew supplementing their incomes through taking bribes.

These observations are consistent with broader research, based on cross-national statistical analysis, that meritocratic recruitment reduces corruption. President Macri thus has a real opportunity to combat corruption by fixing the problems of Argentina’s public sector recruitment practices. And in this area, unlike in others, he can act unilaterally, at least with respect to recruitment practices the federal civil service. President Macri does not need the agreement of Congress to insist on enforcing the formal rules, and end the widespread practice of granting exceptions. As Chief Executive, he can and should insist on no more hiring without a fair and meritocratic recruitment procedure.

9 thoughts on “Guest Post: To Combat Corruption, Argentina Must Insist on Meritocratic Hiring in the Civil Service

  1. Does Argentina have not have a “tenure” system in place for public sector employees, thus making them immune to the threat of being fired for political reasons? Even if bureaucrats are not hired through a competitive process (which I agree with you is a good idea), it seems like having a tenure system would take care of most of the problems you list here (though it of course it may create others, but that is a whole other blog post).

    • Hi Alexander, good question. Some ideas to answer your comment.
      1. Most of public sector employees get the jobs through a contract that provides almost non protection for the worker. After some years (and usually after negotiations between the union and the government) these employees are tenured.
      2. However, as there is no meritocratic recruitment, to get the first contract you have to be friends, family or politically close with political authority. This situation creates weak incentives to stop corrupt practices.
      3. When these people get tenured – also without a meritocratic procedure – they form part of a really politicized bureaucracy – not at all Weber’s idea.
      So, in sum, in my opinion and as Dahlstrom; Lapuente and Teorell show, without meritocratic recruitment, tenured employees are not good enough to curb corruption.

  2. Thank you Professor Boulin and Ms. Kanefield for your very interesting post. While I might be stating the obvious, I think that it is important to mention that even if 100% of public sector employees passed some kind of entry examination, that in and of itself would not guarantee a truly meritocratic hiring process. (For instance, the examinations and their grading might not actually be objective; among the pool of applicants that passed the examinations, those with connections could be given preference; and so on.) In addition, the phenomenon of job requirements that seem objective but are actually expressly designed to give preference to a specific candidate or a specific type of candidate for a position is also unfortunately quite common. All of this is to say that objective (or seemingly-objective) entry examinations and strict job requirements are not enough to promise a genuinely meritocratic hiring process.

    • Hi Guy, you raise a fair point. I agree with you that the system will never be perfect. The problem is that in Argentina you have nothing! Even an imperfect system is better than what we have now.

      • Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment, Professor Boulin! I agree that an imperfect system is better than nothing. My main concern though is that seemingly objective entry examinations/job requirements which are actually not objective at all may give some sort of false legitimacy to an unfair, non-meritocratic hiring process. In other words, people might believe that the hiring process is fair and meritocratic when in reality this is far from the truth. But as you said – an imperfect hiring process is indeed better than a completely unfair one.

        • Dear Guy, I’m inclined to think that entry examinations can be designed to be objective. It is true that it will not be perfect system, but in my opinion there are two issues that are worthy to highlight. First, an imperfect system might not be 100% efficient to chose the best people, but it is useful to discard the worst candidates. Second, and directly related to the topic of this post, the purpose of the examinations is to create incentives in the bureaucracy that are divergent of the political authorities incentives (as you can see here, https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/publication/074ef787-b54d-47b9-ad4a-914ed12ca2ad )

          • I agree that entry examinations can be objective to the extent that this is the goal of their designers. I also agree that even entry examinations that are not fully objective may still be an efficient bar to the least qualified applicants. Thanks for sharing the link to what seems to be a very interesting article!

  3. Fascinating post. Since the problem of corruption in Argentina’s civil service is not a dearth of civil service laws on the books, I’d be curious to know more about who is supposed to be enforcing those laws. Is there an independent civil service commission, like in the United States? Or is enforcement left to some other office for whom civil service laws are merely one of many priorities? I’d also be interested to know about the enforcing agency’s funding sources and the extent to which it is directly accountable to the President. Knowing the answers to these kinds of questions would inform my understanding of the problem, how your proposed solution would be implemented, and whether additional reforms would be needed to truly address the problem.

    • Hi Blake, I’m sorry for the delay in answering back. The enforcer of the these laws is first the Executive Power, who controls de Civil Service, and the judiciary. There is not a civil service commission. However, the President is the one who grants the exemptions to overcome the legal requirement of a meritocratic procedure. And judges usually say there is no legal standing to claim against such kind of granted exception, because there is no particular damage to anyone.
      Solution? In my opinion, judges should give legal standing to anyone claiming not because there is a right to the position, but a right to compete for the position. That might be able to change the practice.

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