“It can no longer be normal that every year there is a wage negotiation and, based on the muscle of the unions, they get a wage increase,” she told the Mail & Guardian. “We hold the money that we have on behalf of the citizens of this country and they have to see value for money.”
A week into her new role, Sisulu has called on public sector unions to return to the negotiating table, following the stalling of wage talks. She wants to strike an accord with unions in the government sector, culminating in a service charter that links increases to productivity and performance improvements.
But this was not “a gun to their heads”, she said. It was an agreement that would be reached together.
The proposed charter would also be “a confidence measure between the public service and the society that they are serving”, as well as a way for public sector workers to bring their needs and problems to her attention more rapidly.
She denied that she was “union-bashing”, an accusation that was levelled at her while she was defence minister after she nullified unions in the defence force by setting up a military ombud’s office.
Defence force unions were unheard of in any other country, she said. In her former role, she had merely been enacting ANC policy, which was backed by a Cabinet decision.
“As the ANC, we decided a long time ago that unions had no place in the defence force,” she said. “The commander in chief, the president, reiterated that. I had the responsibility of carrying out the policy.”
Sisulu has been handed what is arguably one of the toughest jobs in the Cabinet. The stalled public sector wage talks coincide with growing tension between the ANC and its alliance partner, Cosatu, ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December.
Asked whether she was being set up for failure, she said service delivery had become a critical problem. “I don’t think anybody is sitting out there plotting, ‘How can we do her down?’ I don’t think that, if you are in a car and you are facing a crisis, you give the steering wheel to someone who you hope will crash the car while you are inside [it]. That would be suicidal.”
In her new role, Sisulu will be a focal point for labour’s ire, as she is tasked with implementing government’s intention to slow down the generous increases it has awarded public servants in previous years.
“Our [ANC] policies are very sound, but we are lagging behind in delivery. Somebody has to sort out that delivery. It has been called a poisoned chalice. I don’t know. I can only try my best,” she said.
Vehicle for delivery
The new post was about far more than wage battles with unions, she said. “The engine of the entire state administration is this department, the vehicle for delivery is this department. It is about the administration and efficiency of the state …
“The other aspect of the work that I do is to make sure that the public service becomes a professional service [and] to make sure that our regulations and systems are adhered to, that there is compliance with the law.”
Despite her reputation for taking a hard line on issues, an image she believes the media has helped to contrive, a tough demeanour will be required to address the growing government wage bill and an atrophying public service.
Spending on employee compensation rose from R309-billion in 2010/2011 to R347-billion in 2011/2012, R8.1-billion over budget, according to this year’s Budget Review.
The department of public service and administration puts the public sector wage bill at 38.7% of consolidated, non-interest expenditure.
According to the most recent local government budgets and expenditure reviews, the average cost to the state per employee grew in double digits between 2006 and 2009.
The average annual cost per employee in large metros was R230777 in 2009, and the cost in district municipalities was R202438. The cost in rural municipalities was R158826. This represented a monthly cost of R19231, R16869 and R13235 respectively.
At the same time, the implementation of performance management systems in municipalities had declined significantly, as had public perception of service delivery, the review stated.
But Sisulu said she believed the public service had “the ability to show value for money”. If a service charter could be agreed and sold to the public, the next time public servants negotiated salaries, they would “have the public behind them”.
She plans to set up a task team to identify trouble spots in the department that need attention.