How to fix the public service

2010-02-18 00:00

Reform must be affordable

PUBLIC services are very large and complex institutions, and reforming them can be very expensive.

The two best options for funding reform (which are not mutually exclusive) are through a dividend from economic growth and from making savings, perhaps by cutting back inefficient services. When an economy shrinks, state revenues also diminish. The recent green paper on national strategic planning emphasises this repeatedly, and correctly so. Policies that threaten or slow economic growth harm the prospects for improving anything, including the public service.

Reform needs pressure from the top

Every success story about public service reform emphasises the vital role of political leaders at presidential or ministerial level. Conversely, many failed initiatives have lacked high-level political support.

This means that any serious attempt to improve the South African public service as a whole should be championed by the presidency, and implemented or co-ordinated by a capable state entity answerable to the presidency.

Reform needs strategic coalitions

Attempts to reform any organisation will always antagonise parties with an interest in the status quo.

In the case of the South African public service, this includes trade unions that represent public servants, those in and outside the public service who benefit from corruption, and those who are sheltered from the costs of their incompetence by political loyalty. Anyone seeking to reform an organisation needs to understand who is likely to oppose the reform progamme, and why; build alliances of supporters, including those suffering from poor service delivery; and work to reduce fears about the transition.

Reform requires clear goals, effective monitoring and accountability

Successful institutional reform programmes need to meet three basic requirements. They need a clear and realistic set of measurable goals, their progress should be regularly and accurately monitored and they should be held accountable for their performance.

While thorough but infrequent monitoring such as audits and annual reviews are important, efficient delivery needs frequent and local feedback. Monitoring systems should not be cumbersome.

Measured against these requirements, the South African public service seems to lack clear goals as well as accountability. However, some successes have been achieved and the national government has recently acknowledged that it needs to tighten the loop among goals, monitoring and acountability in some areas. Moves in this direction should be recognised and encouraged.

The ANC’s ‘deployment’ policy should be abandoned

As Maphela Ramphele has noted: “The deployment policy of the ANC that has packed public services with incompetent politically connected people has undermined the institutional culture of our public service. The good officials are demoralised and may have left or are leaving the service.”

Good services cannot be delivered by personnel who are not qualified to perform their duties, or feel that, given their political loyalty, their competence has little or no bearing on their employment. If the challenge of delivering decent services is to be met, deployment should be conditional on competence and take account of merit. Ideally, merit should be a primary consideration, and it should be possible to be a dedicated and effective public servant irrespective of political allegiance.

Corruption must be fought far more effectively

Corruption should be taken very seriously. It harms the effectiveness of any institution by distorting hiring, resource allocation and business processes.

Combating it in the public service requires strong political support, systematic monitoring and effective processes for dealing with offenders. Corrupt individuals weigh up the chances of being caught and punished. Fighting corruption requires changing the rules of the game to make corrupt practices far riskier than they are now.

Reform requires good management practices

Efficiency can be increased by putting processes first and working out how an institution should be changed to improve key processes. When planners design state institutions they often start with (overcomplicated) organograms, and then begin to think about processes. Many of the success stories presented to the Round Table included periods of process re-engineering­, often with the temporary help of expert consultants. Consultants can also be used to clarify job descriptions, improve training and design efficient performance management systems.

Reform requires attention to human resources

Public service institutions need to be staffed by skilled and motivated people. Their managers also need to know whether staff members are performing well. Dealing with these challenges requires paying careful attention to human­ resources. Procedures need to be developed to identify current and future skills gaps, recruit suitable staff and manage their performance.

Very senior managers should probably serve for longer periods. Poorly performing officials should be demoted or dismissed and corrupt officials or those committing other criminal acts should be prosecuted.

Affirmative action should be carefully handled

Structural inequalities bequeathed by the previous social order should be redressed and affirmative action is one way of doing so. How- ever, it can have negative consequences, notably the abrupt loss of skills, experience and institutional memory. Redress and efficiency need to be carefully balanced and close attention to human resources and business process issues can help to get this balance right. If processes are simplified and performance effectively managed, this can help to clarify exactly what people need to do and how they should be trained.

One size doesn’t fit all

Although many of the lessons learnt from the Round Table apply to the whole civil service, it comprises bodies which differ widely in size, function and technical demands. What works for one won’t necessarily work for another. The nature and function of each institution should be considered when designing appropriate reform strategies. The activities of the various state entities should also be properly co-ordinated. South Africa currently falls short in this area, as shown by the many instances of poor co-ordination within and among the various spheres of the government raised at the Round Table. The government’s new medium-term strategic framework could be a step in the right direction.

Focused agencies can be more effective than large bureaucracies

A number of the success stories from outside South Africa and within it showed that relatively small and specialised agencies can be far more efficient than larger government bureaucracies. In Tanzania a number of agencies were created to perform specific tasks (such as issuing passports) which was formerly handled by large government departments. The CAA in South Africa was able to turn around so quickly partly because it is relatively small and has clearly demarcated functions. Many of the services delivered by the public service could be offered in more focused ways, and policy makers should seriously consider this option.

Public-private partnerships can work very well

While governments need to ensure that certain services are delivered, it does not mean that it has to deliver those services itself. Many public service functions can be contracted out to private­ providers, which will deliver those services far more efficiently than the state itself. As private health-care provision in Lesotho shows, getting these partnerships to work requires careful planning, but the gains more than justify the effort.

Institutional culture matters

Not all organisations have performance- oriented­ cultures. Networks of corruption and loyalties to goals other than performance, can be deeply entrenched.

This means that people may not automatically change their behaviour as a result of decrees. It can take work and time to make employees understand a new set of rules and to learn to work with new systems for monitoring their performance. Success stories demonstrate the importance of regular and specific monitoring, which can help to entrench a culture of performance.

The public must be brought on board

Service delivery protests indicate a lack of confidence in, or knowledge about, other avenues for participation and criticism. As the ultimate beneficiaries of public services, members of the public should be consulted about services, informed of attempts to improve them, and be made aware of channels for communicating with the government at various levels, especially about poor services and corruption. Vitally, they need a sense that the government is responding to their complaints and suggestions. Citizens who believe that calling a helpline will really help are far less likely to take to the streets.

Concluding remarks

In summary, the technical keys to improving the public service are appropriate and specific goals, accurate monitoring and effective accountability. Attending to business processes and human resources play vital roles in achieving these three goals.

But technical changes are not enough. Any attempt to reform South Africa’s public service must be initiated and supported by its most senior­ political leaders. This Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) Round Table has demonstrated the importance of closing the loop among goals, monitoring and accountability. We need to find the political will to close this loop.

In a successful public service, efficient delivery has to matter much more than good political connections, seniority, loyalty or union power. Public servants in South Africa must be motivated to perform and made to understand that poor performance will have real consequences.

This is a major challenge. Senior positions in the public service are often held by ANC stalwarts. The public service is heavily unionised, and the ANC is in an alliance with the trade union federation representing most of those civil servants.

Our political leaders will have to face up to this dilemma. It is possible to design some reforms in ways that will reduce the anxiety felt by incumbents. Nevertheless, if our civil service is to be reformed, the president and cabinet will have to choose the interests of the future over those of the present and the needs of the many over the preferences of the few.

The hopes of all South Africans must count for more than the comfort of the bureaucracy.




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