Costa Rica's Civil Service and Its Historical Responsibility for Organizational Change

By Ching, Guillermo Lee | Public Personnel Management, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Costa Rica's Civil Service and Its Historical Responsibility for Organizational Change


Ching, Guillermo Lee, Public Personnel Management


Environmental change requires organizations based on participation, flexibility, a customer service culture, deregulation, decentralization and delegation. These require an approach that considers HRM as a strategic entity that serves as a catalyst for organizational and personal development efforts throughout the public sector. The Civil Service Directorate, head of Costa Rica's Civil Service system since 1953, has responded by decentralizing authority to operating agencies while retaining its central role as policy coordinator and technical advisor to agency managers, strengthening the culture of participative and decentralized decision-making, and improving customer service.

Until recently, the context of Costa Rican public administration was relatively tranquil and unchanging. Public employees generally considered themselves beneficiaries of lifetime employment. But as the concept of "permanent" employment becomes less meaningful, civil servants and professional associations are developing a notion of careers that is based more on professional competencies than legal entitlements. This means separating our concept of "careers" from a particular organization, and focusing instead on personal development within a broader profession. According to Fernandez Caveda[1], the important thing is to develop one's career on the basis of this new reality, enhancing the autonomy and initiative needed to provide services flexibly in a variety of situations, working across and through different organizations. From an HR perspective, this means focusing on competencies that will be important for the future, not the entitlements of the past. But all this still takes place within the context of a public administration dependent on synchronous public policymaking and administrative action.

This article was originally published as: "El Servicio Civil de Costa Rica y su Responsabilidad Historica como Gestor del Cambio Organizacional" in Violeta Pallavicini Campos and Ferdinando Goni Ortiz (eds.), 2000. Memoria del Congreso Internacional: Avances y Desafios de la Administracion de los Recursos Humanos al Inicio del Tercer Milenio. San Jose, Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, pp. 61-68. Permission to translate and reprint in Public Personnel Management is given to the IPMA by the author and by the sponsors of the Congreso Internacional.

Being able to do this presupposes organizations that have the following characteristics:

* Relatively flattened and organized by processes, rather than hierarchical

* Simplified, flexible and efficient

* Focused on achieving concrete results rather than duplicating functions best performed by others

* Flexible and capable of decision-making at all levels through appropriate delegation, deregulation, and decentralization (rather than having rigid centralized control over administrative processes)

* Structured on the basis of multidisciplinary work teams rather than departments

* Including advisory groups for each process

* Operating in a paradoxical environment defined by limited citizen confidence, but not total distrust

* Administratively focusing on proactive citizen service rather than passively waiting for people's requests

Redefining the Human Resource Management Function: The Theoretical Context

Organizations frequently ask themselves, How can the HRM function add value and offer results that help achieve the organization's objectives? This is understandable, because HRM is often viewed as conservative, bureaucratic and slow to change -- exactly the opposite of what is needed.[2] The answer lies in rethinking the designs of organizations by creating decentralized teams composed of internal consultants who solve problems, have a generalist orientation, and work within structures that tend to be more horizontal than vertical.[3] It requires a fundamental transformation of personnel administration, from its traditional role of making policy and protecting the merit system, to an emergent role as strategic partner, change agent and administrative expert[4], providing services that support the institutional mission.

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