Time to adopt a wider view on potentials of public sector

There is a truism in wage negotiations: one never gets what one wants. After all, wage negotiations entail power play and compromise. Most negotiators from both employers and unions thus speak of ebbs and flows in the bargaining process.

Consequently, some gains are made, some processes are set up, and some issues deferred.

Generally, these outcomes improve job security and more recently have contributed to improved productivity in the private sector.

Public service wage negotiations should, however, pass a different test rather than simply reaching a settlement. After all, a transformed public service is the best hope we have for eradicating poverty in South Africa.

Most analysis of this year’s wage settlement has left the question of transforming services largely unanswered. On the one hand, government negotiators have reported on major gains in linking wages to the budget cycle, and interpret the agreement as the unions accepting wage moderation.

On the other hand, unions have argued that above-inflation increases are a good settlement in the current economic climate, and that the right to strike over restructuring has been won. Moreover, unions have welcomed the commitment from the government to create 20 000 new jobs.

For those involved in the negotiation process, this is a major step forward. In fact, given the fractious negotiations over the past three years, any settlement is greeted with relief.

Yet, progressive organisations must ask pertinent questions. The government and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in particular, have a responsibility to unleash the developmental potential of the public sector. Sadly, this challenge is not being met, for two inter-related reasons.

First, the government has adopted a set of policies broadly termed “managerialism”. These policies seek to empower management, contract out services and reduce personnel spending.
Evidence from across the developing world has indicated that these policies have not improved service delivery. More damaging is that the public sector loses its role as an agency that attempts to include the poor, and becomes a contracting agency.

Government officials argue that descriptions like this are caricatures of a complex process. Yet any reading of the government’s guiding documents points one to a stylised approach, not authentic solutions. Government departments thus need to adopt a wider view located in South African conditions. This would require a wider focus on institutions (such as schools) as opposed to head office staff, and the development of creative solutions to human and financial resource constraints.

The silver lining in this year’s negotiations process has been the work of the ministers and officials in the integrated justice sector. Over the year a solid case for increased employment in the justice sector has been made.

The argument developed in the integrated justice sector is a more appreciative analysis. In particular, the linkage between the government’s plans and increased staffing created a basis for a sensible discussion on staffing levels. Leaders in the health and education sector would do well to follow this example. More significantly, the example of the justice sector’s approach is indicative that the social service departments can indeed play a developmental role.

Secondly, unions need to entrench their wider developmental agenda. The Cosatu unions in the public service have taken a series of risks. These have included agreeing to scrap a system of virtually automatic pay increases, commitment to redeployment, simpler discipline and incapacity codes and the need to finalise processes for restructuring.

These are major changes to worker security, which were won in shop steward councils and in union policy desks on a developmental logic. The continued threat of retrenchments and outsourcing, however, has the danger of making unions more risk averse.

A more nuanced negotiating strategy from government could build on the commitment to improving service delivery from Cosatu unions, thus creating a common platform. The challenge for unions is to continue to use their commitment to the wider developmental agenda to build new forms of worker security and improve service delivery.

The Public Service Jobs Summit may still prove to be significant in this regard. The agreements reached are profound in that they reflect a wide area of joint action that needs to be undertaken.
As the elected authority, the government has to take the lead in translating these major agreements into reality.

However, one senses that the scale of the agreements may lead to some hesitancy. Yet the major restructuring that is needed to unleash the developmental potential of public service needs bold and deliberate action.

The major challenge remains the agenda that guides the restructuring process. Signposts for a common agenda between unions and the government are far and few between. Crafting a common programme, between unions and the government is, however, possible.

A possible starting point is skills development in the public service. The Sector Education Training Authorities set up to build skills in the public service are not being extensively used. It is no exaggeration to suggest that this constitutes a dereliction of duty, as in many departments the process of implementation has yet to begin. Rejuvenating this process could potentially catalyse a wider discussion, and enhance skill levels in the public service.

Making skills development a cornerstone of the restructuring process, however, requires finality on career progression in the public service. Over the past three years, various processes have been set up to finalise a progression system. This year a commitment to 1% for pay progression has been agreed to. This is progress, at snail’s pace. For instance, the education sector has developed detailed proposals that are awaiting finalisation.

Another potential area for building a common platform is around special projects. Imagine a joint union- government project providing Saturday school for matric students, or on workplace transformation. Workers in many institutions already engage in these types of activities. Building on these emerging experiments could create the spaces for a coalition for change in the public service.

Most crucially, the mode of governance needs to become more inclusive. This entails including citizens and empowering them to participate at schools, hospitals and police stations. This would tangibly deepen democracy. Shifting the focus of reform towards early childhood development, reproductive health and safety could in turn involve women more directly in public service transformation.

Without a coalition between unions and the government the transformative potential of the public service cannot be fully realised. One hopes that in the next few years we are not reminded of that other truism: “Everything must change, for everything to remain the same.” One hopes government and unions take the cue.

Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen is the public sector co-ordinator at the National Labour and Economic Development Institute

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