Reconsidering deployment and the place of politics in public service

Newly-appointed NDPP Advocate Shamila Batohi. (PHOTO: Reuters)
Newly-appointed NDPP Advocate Shamila Batohi. (PHOTO: Reuters)

Strategic roles in government have in the past been used as a reward mechanism for those who support the president or some sort of loyalty retainer. This has to change, writes Thembinkosi Gcoyi.

The appointment of advocate Shamila Batohi as the national director of public prosecutions (NDPP) in December 2018 can be regarded as the first shot in what is likely to be a long running battle against graft, incompetence and political meddling in the public service. 

It will be recalled that the National Prosecutions Authority (NPA) is one of those institutions regarded as having been instrumental in enabling the rot in government and society in general to go unchecked for a very long time under former president Jacob Zuma. The manner of her appointment is instructive of the difficult task that she faces in restoring the credibility of the organisation. 

The president has sought to distance himself from the fall-out that will ensue when she pursues senior politicians in the ANC for their role in degrading the South African state. The establishment of an advisory committee to advise the president on who to appoint to the role, despite the power to appoint being vested solely in him, also speaks of his quest to curb the unholy interference of the ruling party in the running of the state, particularly the employment of senior civil servants. 

During his January 8th address at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on 12 January 2019, President Ramaphosa once again reiterated his commitment to running a public service that is free from corruption and responsive to the needs of South Africans. This is encouraging in an environment in which the vast majority of citizens cannot afford to procure private services for health, security and many other vital areas of their lives. 

2 priorities for meaningful progress

In my view, there are probably two overarching priorities that South Africa ought to be obsessed with to achieve meaningful progress; one is the provision of quality education for all. The other is the establishment of a competent and responsive public service. 

On the former, much has been said in the recent past. It thus does not warrant a repetition in this piece. However, it would appear to me that not much focus is paid by society at large on the need to have a fully functioning, competency driven public service that is capable of carrying out the many important tasks that confront South African society. 

At the core of South Africa's policy conceptualisation and implementation weaknesses is the ANC's deployment policy. By itself, deployment is a necessary mechanism to ensure that the ruling party's objectives are translated into programs of action by government and that all are focused on the same vision. However, over the years the practice has become bastardised with successive administrations in the ANC using the public service as a place to park senior party members who could not be deployed in political roles.

Strategic roles in government have in the past been used as a reward mechanism for those who support the president or some sort of loyalty retainer. The result is that capable civil servants have been pushed out of their important roles in favour of politically networked individuals who do not necessarily have the skill nor the inclination to carry out the job at hand. 

In the process, the performance of government against set objectives has consistently come in below governments' own expectations. 

Being deployed from one of the most important institutions in the land (Luthuli House), deployees tend to come into their government positions with an oversized ego and know-it all attitude. On arrival at these institutions, they encounter highly capable public servants who have been overlooked for leadership positions despite their extensive experience in their portfolio. Inevitably, conflict ensues. In such cases, the experienced public servants tend to either retreat to the sidelines and do as little as possible. Some are pushed out of the service entirely. Think of the likes of Lungisa Fuzile and Vusi Pikoli.

To add fuel to the fire, ministers and their advisors tend to involve themselves unduly in matters of departmental administration. In the worst cases, this includes ministers seeking to influence the employment of lower level managers such as assistant directors and deputy directors. 

This disempowers the director-general who is the accounting officer of the department to the detriment of general discipline and focus on policy objectives. It also leads to conflict between the minister and the director-general, leading, in most cases, to the irretrievable breakdown of working relations and even worse, many departments being without accounting officers for very long periods of time. 

Door opened to relook deployment processes

By establishing an advisory panel for appointing the NDPP, President Ramaphosa has perhaps opened the door for the ruling party to relook its deployment processes to ensure that even when this is necessary, competence is the overarching criteria for deployment. 

As he looks at ways of streamlining the state, he should also consider earnestly the importance of limiting political party influence when critical appointments are made in government, especially considering the manner of his ascent to the ultimate office. 

Many who campaigned for him leading up to Nasrec will view this election as their opportunity to access their just rewards for their tireless work to get him to the high office. Unfortunately, this will imperil his term of office if not carefully managed. 

Government must make a concerted effort to clearly demarcate the role of ministers and their advisors. Ministers must understand their role is to oversee the policy direction of their institutions. They should not involve themselves in administrative matters of their departments. There is an accounting officer in each department precisely for this purpose. 

Government must also hire the best. This includes paying good salaries and creating the environment for talent to flourish. Failure in this will result in the state being a fail-safe mechanism for those who cannot be hired elsewhere. 

It will also result in a mismatch between the public, private and not for profit sectors, leading to a hodgepodge of regulations that undermine the conditions for the creation of a prosperous society. 

- Thembinkosi Gcoyi is the managing director of Frontline Africa Advisory. Follow him on Twitter: @tgcoyi

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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