IU research shows diversity in public service improves effectiveness of South African government

  • June 13, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In the post-apartheid years, the South African Public Service has been transformed into an institution broadly representative of the nation’s diverse population. New Indiana University research indicates that such a change can also foster more effective government.

The research by Sergio Fernandez and Hongseok Lee of IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs is among the first extensive efforts to show how representation of historically disadvantaged groups -- including blacks and women -- affects the performance of the national government.

Their conclusions counter claims that affirmative action has damaged South Africa’s public sector. Instead, the researchers show, the public-sector workforce does a better job if there is greater representivity, a measure of how well the workforce reflects the nation’s population.

“While our research focused exclusively on South Africa, lawmakers and policymakers in the U.S. and globally could use our findings to bolster arguments that affirmative action aimed at promoting representivity can be a powerful tool for better government,” Fernandez said.

Since the end of apartheid, the South African Public Service has undergone significant changes in its structure, managerial practices and capabilities. It has also been transformed into a representative bureaucracy that closely mirrors the national population.

The authors analyze the influence of racial and gender representation on the effectiveness of national departments and public entities with these key findings:

  • The value of representative bureaucracy in South Africa goes beyond its symbolic worth in promoting representivity and equality. Greater representation of blacks in the public service makes national departments and public entities more effective at achieving their goals.
  • Representivity in lower levels of the public service where employees are in close proximity to citizens appears to be particularly crucial for improving performance.

“Bureaucrats who share language and culture with citizens they closely interact with have greater empathy for the hardships communities face, can understand their needs better and can more effectively serve them,” Fernandez said.

The research is based on longitudinal data from 2006 to 2014 reported by over 60 national departments and public entities as well as audit results and management assessment scores compiled by South Africa’s auditor-general and presidency, respectively. Fernandez, an associate professor, and Lee, a doctoral student, also conducted interviews with officials from seven national departments.

The research is published in the Journal of Modern African Studies in the article "The transformation of the South African Public Service: exploring the impact of racial and gender representation on organizational effectiveness."

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Jim Hanchett

  • School of Public and Environmental Affairs
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  • jimhanch@indiana.edu