Public sector reform: Urgent, difficult, politically sensitive — but entirely possible

By Marianne Thamm• 13 May 2021

A discussion, titled “Political Risks of Public Service Reform”, was hosted by the Government and Public Policy (GAPP) think tank and its director, Ivor Chipkin.

The conversation was moderated by writer Palesa Morudu and included Anthony Butler, professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, Kganki Matabane, CEO of the Black Business Council, Itumeleng Molatlhegi (speaking on behalf of Cosatu) and Neeshan Balton, executive director of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation.

During the well-attended webinar, it was former deputy national director of public prosecutions, Willie Hofmeyer, who said in the Q&A section that in his experience, lifestyle audits on politicians had no effect.

“This is a senior former civil servant who says they don’t work… how do we respond to that,” remarked Morudu.

It was Molatlhegi who picked up the hot potato, saying that audits meant nothing without implementation.

“You do the audit and then you do something,” he said, highlighting the kind of impasse that has been allowed to fester in the public sector.

Butler presented a summary of April 2021 meetings between several stakeholders responding to Minister of Public Service and Administration Senzo Mchunu’s launch in February 2021 of a consultation process on the National Implementation Framework aimed at professionalising public services.

At the launch, Mchunu said “the negative stigma” the public service suffered was highly politicised “with people who lack professionalism and do not put the effort into serving the public as part of their public duty”.

Chipkin said on Wednesday that the professionalisation of the public service “is the most important issue facing South Africa today” and the country could not advance “without paying serious attention to overcoming problems in public service”.

During consultations, Butler said Mchunu had agreed that the diagnosis of the public service was more negative than positive, but the minister did not agree that it was bloated.

However, said Butler, “we do have a really serious problem with the public service wage bill that does need to be addressed”.

This had grown to “uncontrollable levels” and besides, “paying high salaries appears to have no impact on reducing incentives and corruption”. 

Butler said Mchunu himself agreed high salaries were no deterrent to temptation.

At present more than a third of those employed in the public service were not qualified for their positions. One of the elements of reform, said Butler, would be to confront those employees and investigate how they came to the job.

“This would be a broad interrogation of public servants’ qualifications,” said Butler, adding that no detail of how this would happen in practice existed yet.

In December 2020, the National School of Government published a draft of the National Implementation Framework towards the professionalising of the public sector.

The draft recommended “a few decisive reforms” including extending the tenure of heads of department (HoD), creating a head of the public service and implementing occupation-specific competency assessments (not just the generic competency assessments presently in use).

Further suggestions were that HoDs were rotated “every seven years (while at the same time implementing the revolving-door policy and making secondment policy more flexible) and involving the Public Service Commission (PSC) or their nominated experts in the interviews of deputy directors-general (DDGs) and directors-general (DGs)”. 

Butler said public sector reform took place in a political context and shaped the opportunities available to governments. 

“The political context is at the centre. It has a lot of dimensions,” he said.

The reforms were aimed at turning the public sector into a set of institutions that provided a career for people.

“We are looking to have permanent senior public-sector officials who have spent their entire career in public service,” he said.

Attracting this individual would depend on the recruitment process and this would be a new role for the Public Service Commission.

While the question remained on whether it was ever possible to have a politically neutral public service, it was important to acknowledge which were the “properly political positions” and how transparent these appointments could be.

The ANC, said Butler, “had miscalculated why institutions matter”.

The public service should be viewed as an institution and not an instrument, he said. Cadre deployment had helped to further the longer-term objectives of the ANC itself and “there have been many consequences that have outweighed the benefits”.

Butler said the thing about public service reform “was that you need to be persistent at it”. 

As Bill Thompson, head of the Eurasia Division of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — who has vast experience in public sector reform — said: “You cannot introduce a new framework that will suddenly work and change the behaviour.”

The negative perception of the public service “can be won around” to reform and public servants often had ideas on how reform could happen, he said.

“The problem is not public servants in general. The problem is, more than anything else, with the political elite that knows what is happening in the public service, is complicit, but does not review reform as less damaging to themselves than no reform,” said Butler.

Bishop Mpumlwana said the time was right for reform as “South Africans are tired of maladministration”.

He said that a “plague” of corruption was taking place even at community level and “we are not one common society… everyone’s for themselves”. The SACC had identified four areas that “would make a difference”.

There was healing and reconciliation that still needed to be done as we had, as a country, not “invested” in this.

“We remain with the same generational woundedness that makes everyone fend for themselves,” he said.

Economic transformation, said Mpumlwana, needed to deal, in a focused manner, on poverty and inequality, “though not through social grants”.

“It has to be a deliberate process to bring the excluded majority into the economy.”

Economic transformation was not about tenders and BEE, said Mpumlwana — it was about quality comprehensive education.

With regard to senior civil servants, the SACC said it believed a 20-year contract would go a long way towards institutionalising expertise “so they can brief the minister on how we do business around here”.

Black Business Council CEO Kganki Matabane said the stability of the public sector in the Western Cape was one of the reasons the province scored so well in Auditor-General reports.

The revolving door in public service led to a DG leaving after two years and being replaced by an acting substitute who “won’t take decisions they cannot implement”.

A disagreement in the public sector, said Matabane, could lead to a ruined career, while this was not the case in the private sector. He said South Africans often confused corruption and transformation.

“It does not mean we have to hire people who are not qualified. You have to have potential, you have to have experience, you have to develop qualifications.”

Employment equity should not be done away with in the process of professionalisation, said Matabane.

Neeshan Balton of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation said a system needed to be built that could regulate heads of departments or directors-general who signed off on unlawful or irregular matters.

Molatlhegi said that whoever was responsible for the “internal cancerous decay” was no longer the issue at this point.

“There is a new sheriff in town… there has to be more cooperation on how this policy will be executed,” he said.

While South Africa had public servants who were not productive, the question was why this was so. The capacity of these employees did not match those of a growing society. He said that it was the electoral system “that injects politics into the public sector”.

The historic context of the public sector was the pre-1994 “sunset clauses” which asserted the “hegemony of apartheid to continue post-apartheid and within the economic context”. 

Molatlhegi said the judiciary had stood out in holding public officials to account, with personal liability now a policy.

“If you are found to have been wanting, you will be personally liable for it. That is one way of cleaning up and consequence-management.”

Chipkin wrapped up the discussion by saying civil society, churches, unions, the business sector and citizens should place the importance of public-sector reform on the national agenda.

Bolton had remarked earlier that the task was “not as difficult as we tend to think. We are not rebuilding the state from the beginning”.

Said Chipkin: “We are not operating from the point of catastrophe.” DM

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