Building an agile public service

Samwu leaders address workers in Cape Town on Tuesday who were rioting over wages. (David Harrison, M&G)

Samwu leaders address workers in Cape Town on Tuesday who were rioting over wages. (David Harrison, M&G)

The Marikana labour disaster underscores the political foresight and leadership deployed by Lindiwe Sisulu, the minister of public service and administration, in the recent public sector wage agreement. Such transformative leadership has many benefits for the public service and its administration.

After Marikana, the civil service wage agreement between government and public service trade unions matters. There are always conflicts in the employer-employee relationship.
Transferring the dynamics and behaviour of private sector wage negotiations to the public sector doesn’t necessarily work, but the approach adopted by Sisulu was, by all accounts, based on the view that a conditional wage agreement must secure benefits for the public, the building of a productive state administration and improved remuneration for public servants.

Moreover, the powerful but unwritten narrative of the agreement is that the next three years must deliver a professional and competent public service. The talks delivered a three-year agreement that emphasises public interest and accountability, and has the potential to strengthen a collaborative relationship with public sector trade unions. The agreement provides an opportunity for the public service administration to deal with substantive issues: finalisation of a single public service; professionalisation of the service by ensuring the contractual appointment of civil servants through an obligatory training programme; and developing future public service and fiscal policy proposals such as performance management systems, to increase productivity. From a public sector economics perspective, the agreement provides economic and fiscal stability for three years.

The British Labour Party’s Andrew Puddlephatt says public service inefficiency is theft from the working class, and Sisulu believes the public deserves a loyal, committed and professional civil service that serves all citizens. This is a constitutional requirement.  

Still, Sisulu is faced with a gargantuan challenge in turning the public service machinery around. There seems to be consensus, across political parties, the various legislatures, civil society, industry and other economic role players, that most of the civil service is dysfunctional (exceptions would be the National Treasury and Home Affairs). The many national interventions in provincial governments and municipalities and declarations by Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi on the state of business administration in his department suggest that the civil service should be in intensive care.

Thus the idea of a single public service administration becomes critical. Such a policy decision demands a new plan of public goods and service-delivery improvements, commitment from all political parties and institutions of government, especially premiers and mayors, and including the principled commitment shown by the public sector unions to build an agile public service.

Institutions and infrastructure
The National Planning Commission is correct to say that the state has to provide institutions and infrastructure to enable the economy and society to operate properly; this includes building a social safety net that delivers social inclusion and peace. So far, South Africa’s democratically elected government has had varying success in reforming the civil service as far as service delivery, management and administration systems and prudent fiduciary management go.

South Africa has a functioning state machinery, but it lacks agility and responsiveness. It lacks a professional, well-equipped and innovative civil service at all levels of government. Reports on irregular spending, wastage, corruption and fraud tarnish the institutional integrity of government and the state administration.

Inequality, poverty, unemployment and crime can only be addressed by a capable and professionally strong civil service. The government’s commitment to building such a service has been undermined by weak administration and management systems, as well as corruption. Encouragingly, the settlement made by Sisulu suggests that trade unions and government intend to produce an accord that would take a stance of zero tolerance on inefficiency and corruption.

Delivery of public goods demands strong state administrative capacity. This capacity development should be about delivery systems that take cognisance of variation across and within provinces and municipalities. In other words, we need a single public service with differentiated responsibilities where needed. This would enable common approaches to departmental and provincial configurations and service-delivery systems, while recognising that delivery in various areas (education, say, versus health) is inherently different.

Professionalising a single, effective civil service to serve the elected government and ultimately the public is a key goal. The first step towards professionalisation, as correctly advanced by Sisulu, is the implementation of a year-long competency-based induction programme on how government works and the administrative and technical capabilities of a professional civil service. This is the right approach and the only way to achieve efficiency gains for the public.

Professor Daniel Plaatjies works in the School of Business Management at the University of Free State. He is the editor of Future Inheritance: Building State Capacity in Democratic South Africa and the forthcoming Protecting the Future: Governance and Public Accountability in Democratic South Africa

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