Skills and professionalism are scarce in public service

2012-03-03 13:34

The state has always had a critical role to play in countries that have achieved rapid economic development and social transformation. But effective states have always done much more than simply spend money: they have planned ahead, used their resources wisely and effectively, and built constructive relationships with other sectors.

It was essential to ensure that the public service was better equipped to play its role in building a new South Africa. The first challenge was to transform the public service into a body that represented all South Africans.

 This objective has largely been achieved. The second objective was to build the systems, processes, skills and professionalism of a public service committed to the country’s developmental agenda.

This is what the draft National Development Plan sets out to address in its proposals on how we can build a more capable state. Improving quality means making sure we use our resources wisely.

The public sector’s biggest resource is the people it employs in government departments, municipalities,
state-owned enterprises, schools and hospitals. Skills and professionalism are scarce resources in the public service.

Rather than grappling consistently with the problems we face, we have tended to change our policy approach and organisational structures in the hope of finding a quick fix.

This exacerbated our problems by creating organisational and policy instability that diverted us from tackling the underlying issues.

That is why the draft plan focuses on identifying strategic long-term measures that, if pursued consistently, will help to improve the capacity and performance of the state between now and 2030.

In the interests of democracy, it is essential that the public service is accountable to its political masters, but excessive political involvement in day-to-day administrative issues has created too much instability. It has also undermined public confidence that recruitment and promotion is based on suitability for the job rather than political connections.

We at the National Planning Commission argue that an important first step in addressing this problem is to better insulate the public service from undue forms of political interference. We have a number of suggestions for achieving this, including the creation of an administrative head of the public service.

Heads of department could report to this person on matters such as recruitment, procurement and financial management. The second focus area is the need to ensure public servants have the authority, experience and support they need to do their jobs.

We pay particular attention to recruitment, management and training. Our strategy starts with how to recruit young people with potential and a passion for public service. Current recruitment schemes are too fragmented, making it difficult for young people to identify how they can embark on a career as a public servant.

It goes on to look at how we can ensure their skills are developed over the course of their careers. We also suggest improvements to training and management. It is essential to recognise just how long it takes to develop skilled and experienced public servants, and that many of these skills are best developed on the job.

Many mid-level posts have been downgraded, meaning people are given fewer responsibilities.

It is essential that people are given adequate responsibility so that they feel stretched and challenged, but also that they are given adequate guidance and support to enable them to grow and fulfil their potential.

If we are to develop skills in the public service, we need to get better at delegating.

It is natural that those in senior positions will be worried about what happens if things go wrong on their watch and so the temptation is always to take control of more issues.

Ultimately, this is counterproductive. It means those at the top end up overwhelmed with so many issues that it becomes increasingly difficult to exercise oversight.

One of the other big challenges South Africa has had to grapple with is how to ensure constructive relations between the different parts of government.

This applies among government departments and between the different spheres of government – national, provincial and local government.

These issues are not just about the formal structures. The most critical issue is relationships.

We need to find ways of working together more effectively to overcome these problems. But government cannot do this on its own.

Building the capacity of the state is something we all need to work at. This needs to happen at every level, from local councils through to provincial and national structures.

The planning commission is engaged in consultations to strengthen and refine the proposals in the draft plan. A first step is to share your thoughts, experiences and ideas by getting involved with the debate about the draft plan.

» Moloi is a commissioner with the National Planning Commission 

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