Graft bureau part of bigger plan

2013-06-09 14:01

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Window dressing by a government under pressure from negative perceptions of its ability to deal with corruption, and a looming election – or a serious commitment to dealing with the scourge?

These are some of the questions around the new anticorruption bureau that Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu wants up and running as early as next month.

It’s part of broader plans to overhaul the public service that include a ban on state employees doing business with government and a mandatory cooling-off period before civil servants land private sector jobs.

They’re detailed in the Public Administration Management Bill that’s been gazetted for public comment.

In an interview with City Press, Sisulu frankly admitted the existing public service anticorruption unit was little more than window-dressing.

“(The unit) never did take off. It was dead in the water. We were basically at that time just responding to the outrage around perceptions of corruption, or real corruption,” Sisulu said.

With a staff of just eight people, it was unable to cope.

President Jacob Zuma’s expected to issue a proclamation establishing the new bureau by the end of the month. It will be based on the Tanzanian model, which Sisulu said had succeeded in reducing once-rife corruption to mere “pockets”.

Staff have already been seconded from the Special Investigating Unit and the Hawks, but the R17 million budget Sisulu inherited has already been criticised as so small as to jeopardise the bureau’s efficiency in curbing corruption within government.

Sisulu said she’d be discussing funding requirements with the treasury, including the possibility of ploughing back into the bureau the savings it clawed back from fraud and corruption.

Weak systems, poor management, people unable to efficiently use mechanisms already in place to curb wrongdoing and inadequate ethics training underpin the ease with which billions of rand get siphoned off into the pockets of crooked state employees and their friends and relatives, Sisulu said.

“We now have 1.4 million people in the public service who have learned what possibilities there are in cheating the system – and they’ve been able to get away with it.

“Many of them are living beyond their means in a society that’s increasingly materialistic.”

Civil servants’ “double dipping” by doing business with government closed down opportunities for entrepreneurs, Sisulu said.

“They’re already in secure jobs and have the upper hand (when it comes to tenders) because they know how to cheat the system.

“It means the economy’s not going to grow – all we’re growing is the wage bill, which is a huge concern for all of us,” Sisulu said.

Her department reduced it from “a nominal 45 percent of government expenditure to 34% in real terms” by clawing back “seepages”.

Pay progression – every civil servant annually going up a salary notch – was “completely unchecked”. The Bill provides for state employees to first pass exams before being promoted.

Sisulu said the practice by provinces of maintaining vacant but unfunded posts and then applying to the treasury to use unspent salaries on other things will also stop.

“The wage bill is actually a conflated figure. It’s something we’re working on with the treasury.”

She’s sensitive to public sector unions’ resentment of “the way the wage bill’s thrown at them” when wage talks get under way. Fighting back “is necessary but not at the point when negotiations are about to start”.

With its work set to grow “incrementally” an early focus for the anticorruption bureau will be to manages disciplinary action against civil servants across national, provincial and local government.

Its mandate includes support for whistle-blowers, protecting information and driving investigations to speedy conclusion.

Sisulu could not put a figure to the cost of public servants sitting at home on full pay while the cases against them floundered but said “it is a drain on resources”.

“The message we want to get out is that we will not tolerate wrongdoing – any savings will be a bonus, and there will be huge savings.”

Part of the bill’s push to impose uniform standards across all levels government is to allow for putting skills where they’re needed most, deal with pay disparities and political meddling in the appointment of top officials.

The swathe of disclaimers from the Auditor-General on municipalities’ financial affairs “is shocking”.

“You look at the qualifications of municipal managers and you begin to understand – most of them are just not able to cope.

“The problem is appointments at municipal level are very often dominated by political interference – and I don’t know whether (regional politicians) have the skills to measure the abilities of the people they select.”

While the Bill provides scope for recycling directors general to run failing municipalities, no one will be transferred without their consent.

“But the fact is we need skills at local government level because they’re all been siphoned off to national and provincial level,” Sisulu said.

She also wants DGs’ appointments out of the hands of politicians, but needs political buy-in. “We’ll wait for that to unfold – see how Cabinet takes it,” she said.

Also uncertain is whether the National Development Plan’s proposal for a head of the civil service – a super-DG – will be adopted.

Sisulu’s aware of instability and inefficiencies caused by rapid turnover of DGs due to tensions with their political principals but said: “You can’t use the law to dictate how people relate to each other. You will always have a DG reporting to a minister and the relationship either works or it does not.”

Applying universal norms and standards across the civil service will take time and careful negotiating, especially with unions.

Sisulu sees labour’s early – and critical – response to the bill as similar to the DA’s: “They see a spook before they’ve examined whether it’s the lights of an oncoming car.”

Bargaining councils in the public service won’t be affected by the bill: “We’re not going to change that at all. And we’re reassuring the DA we’re not going to interfere with rights enshrined in the constitution.

“We’re laying uniform standards so what happens in Empangeni is the same that happens in (DA-run) Midvaal – not the whim of anyone running an administration. The constitution spells this out and we’re going to adhere to that.”

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