• Opinion
  • December 5, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

With Integrity Idol, we’re celebrating the hidden heroes of public service

Opinion: South Africans don't trust government — championing honest public servants is key

This opinion piece was written by Jean Scrimgeour, Strategy and Operations Manager and Faith Pienaar, Non-Profit Management Fellow of the Accountability LabFor more like this, see our spotlight on public service leadership in Africa.


A lack of accountability is at the heart of many development challenges, jeopardises achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and threatens global efforts to “leave no one behind”. It leads to corruption and violence, and deepens poverty and inequality.

Corruption is bad for everyone; and in recent times there are few countries that have experienced the level and depth of widespread systemic corruption as South Africa.

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Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone missing resulting in rising inequality, a significant increase in the cost of basic goods and services and rampant unemployment. Corruption has eroded public trust and undermined the state’s social contract with its citizens.

But perhaps most importantly, it has resulted in significant challenges and missed opportunities for young people. A 2016 study by ISS attempts to provide a detailed picture of youth perceptions of politics and the factors that influence participation. The greatest disincentive to voting? Corruption.

The last eight years have profoundly shaken South Africans’ confidence in their leadership

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) Trust in Public Service Report notes that “few perceptions are more palpable than that of trust or its absence”. According to Afrobarometer, the events of the last eight years have profoundly shaken the South African citizens’ confidence in their leadership and trust in its institutions.

President Cyril Ramaphosa in his 2018 State of the Nation address signalled a renewed political will to “turn the tide against corruption in public institutions” and rebuild the people’s trust. However, any attempt to reinvigorate the trust that has been lost will need to be radically different. Current approaches to public participation simply are not creative, relevant and positive enough for this generation.

At the Accountability Lab, we have worked to change these dynamics in South Africa through Integrity Idol. This is an annual, predominantly mobile, youth-driven campaign with the explicit goal of bringing South Africans from every province into a conversation about integrity and accountability.

We ask South Africans to nominate honest public servants that deliver frontline services such as health, education, safety and security through an online nomination process. We then make short documentaries about the top five which are broadcasted online, on national television and on radio after which we ask people to vote for their favourite “Idol”.

We ask South Africans to nominate honest public servants that deliver frontline services

This project draws upon the successful implementation of Integrity Idol in Nepal, Liberia, Mali and Pakistan since 2015 — which has garnered millions of viewers and attention everywhere from the Economist to the Guardian to Foreign Policy.

The competition in South Africa this year received hundreds of nominations from every province and every racial, cultural and socio-economic demographic. “Naming and faming”, as opposed to “naming and shaming” provided a welcome, alternative approach to the prevailing narrative of the past few years.

It sounds simple but this effort to flip narratives is profound. For us at the Lab, Integrity Idol is about the process, not the outcome. It is an exercise in broadening the national imagination of what a “public servant” is, and can be, by challenging perceptions and allowing everyday South Africans to rebuild trust with people that are working for them.

Integrity Idol works because it is local — celebrating frontline civil servants allows ordinary people to see they serve as catalysts for change. It works because we connect honest public servants with one another to create new, unlikely networks across party and political interests.

These coalitions can serve as a means to realign and reinvigorate the commitment to “public service for public good”. The winning Idols have gone on to push for greater integrity based on the trust and credibility generated through the campaign.

Integrity Idol provides hope — and a renewed sense of trust in the civil service

For example, one winner in South Africa was recently asked to join a high-level ethics committee; while others have met with senior government officials to showcase their work. But perhaps most importantly, Integrity Idol is a way for all of us to shape public service reform by bringing young people into a discussion around public trust and the role that they can play in its creation.

Through the campaign we worked with scores of volunteers, developed a film lab for young people to support the production of the content; and now we are working with universities and the government to connect young people with the right kind of civil servants.

There is certainly more we can do — and we are adapting and trying out new ideas as we go along. But at its core, what we have found is that Integrity Idol provides hope and a renewed sense of trust in the civil service that young South Africans can help to build.

After years of headlines about corruption, patronage and state-capture, reimagination can be very powerful. Join us in harnessing it for the kind of South Africa that we all want to live in. — Jean Scrimgeour and Faith Pienaar

(Picture credit: Flickr/Accountability Lab)

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