‘Pencil pushers’ aren’t the issue: bureaucrats are inappropriately politicised

The local and global medical crisis is fast becoming an unprecedented economic crisis. In this context the debate is dominated by epidemiologists and economists as SA and the world rush to find the right treatment model and the correct mix of economic stimuli and rescue packages. We are walking a tightrope, trying to save lives and also livelihoods.

On Wednesday the cabinet failed to announce its “recovery plan”, with more and more voices worrying that the government is mismanaging the economic response. A Business Day editorial on April 17 complained that the steps that have been taken so far are too small and that they have been bogged down in “bureaucratic incompetence”.

The previous day Rob Rose, in the Financial Mail, detailed how emergency funding wasn’t reaching those who needed it. He argued that the reason was that myopic soldiers of bureaucracy were mindlessly vetoing applications, and were thus serving as a pillow over the economy’s face.

“Pencil pushers,” as Rose called public servants, are unavoidable. Medical responses, stimulus packages and emergency grants all need people that will administer them effectively and honestly.

Have we already forgotten the overwhelming lesson of the last 15 years or so? When bureaucrats are pushed aside, when administrations are bypassed, politicians and corporate opportunists gouge huge rents from public projects or steal outright? No, we need pencil pushers. What is true, however is that the question of how best to build effective and responsive administrations in the current crisis has barely been raised. We had better get on top of this issue.

Government’s “state capacity and institutional development” cluster developed a report for cabinet on this topic. It is not a helpful document, mainly full of exhortations. “There must be an assessment of the risk and governance frameworks”, there is a need to “fast-track district delivery model implementation”, and so on. There is even an exhortation that government must procure “disaster management equipment’, whatever that is. It nowhere provides concrete answers to particular questions. That is what is needed, however.

Take the current medical planning to manage the spread of the virus and respond appropriately. In preparation for the rollout of National Health Insurance, a team under Olive Shisana has built an impressive planning technology. It is based at the CSIR and includes an integrated dashboard that allows the Command Centre to observe the movement of vulnerable people, see the location of the nearest medical facility and know what medical capacity is has (beds, ventilators, ICU nurses, pulmonologists and so on).

To work, however, the system needs “live” data, which is both accurate and comes in regularly. If a ventilator at a hospital breaks or a nurse falls ill, for example, the facility has less capacity to receive new patients. From what I understand, information is not flowing to make the dashboard effective or optimal.

Why not? Some hospital administrators are too busy to regularly update the app that they have been given (not so much pencil pushers as screen touchers). In many cases there is a political problem. Provincial departments want to see the information before it goes public, less it cast an unflattering light on the performance of MECs or provincial departments.

Hospital administrators are no less intimidated by the prospects of transparency. This is a classic problem of public administration. These are the kinds of concrete organisational and administrative problems that need to be solved in the here and now.

This speaks to a wider problem in SA. Public administrations over the last 20 years or so were allowed (or encouraged) to become inappropriately politicised. Here are some suggestions for how we can start building capable administrations in the short and medium term.

Decide on where to draw a line between political and administrative appointments and define distinct recruitment paths for each. For example, the roles of advisers to the minister are clearly political roles.

The roles of director-general and deputy director-general are ones at the interface between the political executive and the departmental administration. They need to have the trust of the politicians that they serve, while also having the faith of the department. It is appropriate that their appointment route is a mixed one. Below director-general and deputy-director general appointments could be administrative.

Administrative appointments should require a universal entrance exam into the public service, as well as ongoing professional development through a properly resourced and independent national school of government.

The role of vetting appointments in the public service should be returned to the Public Service Commission or an independent body established for this purpose.

For mixed appointments, the relevant department together with the Public Service Commission could shortlist candidates from which the minister could choose.

Procurement officers are always administrative appointments and, given the scale of outsourcing in SA, the integrity of the role needs to be especially safeguarded. This could be done by professionalising their roles by, in addition, requiring them to register with a suitably established, independent, statutory body that could withdraw its accreditation in cases of misconduct.

At this moment of crisis there is the necessary urgency to take the first steps in this process.

• Chipkin is director of the Government and Public Policy Thinktank.

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