The public service is broken

2012-08-11 13:08

In terms of the Constitution, public service has to: be professional, efficient in the use of resources, development-oriented, impartial in the provision of services, responsive to the needs of the people, accountable, transparent and representative of the South African population; perform effectively and efficiently in meeting all the tasks of government; and have the institutional capacity and organisational ethos to perform the tasks of government effectively.

Since 1994, the population of the country has grown as have the demands on government to deliver a variety of services, and to overcome the social and economic inequalities inherited from the apartheid past.

The statistics on the current social situation are:

»between 18 million and 24 million South Africans (45%-55%) are living in poverty, with 8 million to 10 million in extreme poverty;

»official unemployment estimates show that close to 30% of the economically active population are without a job;

»about 15 million South Africans receive some form of social grant;

»about 80% of South Africans are dependent on public health, which is severely under-resourced and unable to meet demands; and

»there is an enormous demand for access to housing, electricity, water and sanitation.

There is a social housing backlog of approximately 2.2 million units this year, about 3.4 million households still without access to electricity, and about 11% (1 381 687) in 2010 having no sanitation services, with 28% having inadequate sanitation.

Government does not have the necessary resources to meet the increasing demands placed on it and there is an increase in the gap between what people expect and what government is realistically able to deliver.

It is unable to meet the growth targets required to meet increasing demands and its constitutional obligation to provide such services.

Of course, in the face of such challenges, the state should not add further impediments to its own progress. But in its choice of its public servants it seems to do exactly that.

William Gumede argues that publicservice should consist “of the nation’s brightest and most talented”, and appointments to it must be “based on merit, rather than politics”.

It must also have an esprit de corps “that puts attainment of developmental goals and service above personal, political” and other narrow interests.

Yet, South African publicservice is characterised by poor governance, lack of accountability and transparency, massive failures in planning, budgeting and implementation, incompetent and underqualified officials and widespread corruption.

These have given rise to service delivery failures, massive underspending and negative audit opinions; and significant cases of unauthorised, fruitless, wasteful and irregular expenditure by government structures in all spheres of government and numerous cases of fraud and corruption involving officials.

According to the PublicService Commission, 7 529 cases of corruption reported to the national anti-corruption hotline between 2004 and 2010 were referred to government departments.

However, in 64% of these cases, no feedback was received from the departments.

Officials who are found guilty generally receive very lenient punishments, such as written warnings, and these matters are not reported to the police.

The ANC’s deployment strategy systematically places loyalty ahead of merit and even of competence, and is therefore a serious obstacle to an efficient publicservice.

Politically connected and, in many cases, incompetent cadres are deployed to senior positions.

Unqualified people are unable to deliver services efficiently and effectively. And cadre deployment is but one of the factors affecting efficiency.

Publicservice needs effective managers, however managers constituted only a small proportion of the publicservice (0.4%) in 2002.

There is also a high level of turnover of middle and senior management because of negative perceptions of working conditions, a high demand for qualified professional staff in the private sector and growing international opportunities for skilled South Africans.

The situation has not improved drastically since 2002.

The transformation of the publicservice since 1994 resulted in a damaging skills exodus. High vacancy rates at senior management levels are persistent and the contracts of senior managers are often of short duration.

Attracting and retaining talent in the publicservice remains a challenge.

A range of measures have been introduced over the years to deal with some of the maladies affecting the publicservice, but these require enforcement and prosecutorial mechanisms to be put in place.

We need to encourage an institutional culture that embodies the Constitution.

This can be encouraged by promoting a professional publicservice subject to merit-based selection and promotion processes, and investing in the recruitment, training and retention of skilled public servants.

A human resources management system needs to be implemented to deliver the badly needed services.

»Sausi, Kanyane and Houston are sociopolitical academics, researchers and authors

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