/ 22 March 2013

Public sector ‘manages’ to fail

For the successful delivery of services
For the successful delivery of services

Apparently, South Africa is in decline. There are regular and increasingly violent "service delivery" protests, wildcat strikes and the unravelling social compact among business, government and the unions. The public health sector is in crisis and education, especially for the poor, remains appalling. And so it goes on.

With this sentiment comes another: nostalgia for the past – not for the terrors of white rule but for the supposed effectiveness and reliability of the old public service. But this story is wrong. It is based on the idea that the institutions of the apartheid state may have been singing to a sinister tune but they were singing nonetheless.

This idea informs our analysis of what is going wrong currently, even if unwittingly. It makes us focus primarily on questions of skills and of leadership. The right leadership matters, as does the conversation about the skills needed for an effective public sector. But the government and public sector are not only made up of people. They consist of people in organisations – government departments, agencies, components.

We at the Public Affairs Research Institute have been studying public sector organisations to understand how they are working. The institute's research points to underexplored stories of our public sector organisations, and about what has shaped current performance and delivery. These realities affect the kinds of interventions that stand a good chance of improving performance and accountability, and thus the kinds of interventions that won't.

We can begin the story in the early 1990s: the newly elected ANC government sets out to expand services to black South Africans radically and transform the economy. But it is faced with a bureaucracy that has been in the service of a brutal, racist regime. Departments and agencies needed to be changed to achieve a new democratic, development mandate.

The focus of this transformation, perhaps ironically, took its cue from one of apartheid's own myths (and a flaw in the ANC's own analysis) that the apartheid state was institutionally fully developed, that what was needed was to change its orientation (away from simply serving whites or homeland elites) and how it worked (authoritarian, inwardly focused).

Patrimonial relations
The reality was somewhat different. Many apartheid-era administrations, for example, especially in the former bantustans, had weak administrative and technical capacity and were deeply implicated in patrimonial relations. As the apartheid state progressively ceded power to the homelands so the bantu authority system provided more opportunities to traditional elites, senior bureaucrats and South African companies for the accumulation of wealth.

In the post-apartheid period, these administrations were incorporated into the new provincial governments of the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, North West, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the Free State. Are we surprised, therefore, that the Gauteng and Western Cape provincial governments work better than the others? They did not have to integrate former bantustan administrations into their provincial governments.

Underestimating the tremendous unevenness of the apartheid state has resulted in some major policy errors in the democratic era.

Consider the case of public sector reform in the post-apartheid period. The solution to developing a public service that could deliver on the policies of the democratic government was deemed to lie in the adoption of new public management. This model of the public sector was originally inspired by a conservative critique of social democracy, welfare states and bureaucratic modes of government. Its champions were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

In South Africa, it was championed by the department of public service and administration. It claimed that government efficiency could be improved by adopting some of the techniques of the private sector, particularly by moving away from outdated, "bureaucratic" methods to more modern "management" techniques. What was needed, in other words, was a public service staffed by innovative managers freed from red tape and given the discretion to develop strategy and drive policy.

In the late 1990s, the government introduced the senior management service (SMS) to drive this. We might note that, since its introduction, the SMS stratum has grown from about 2500 to more than 10 000 today.

There have been some unexpected consequences of this focus. It has been interpreted to mean that senior officials should concentrate on policy, strategy and vision at the expense of administration and the carefully detailed development of operational systems and process.

High staff turnover
This situation is compounded by high vacancies and turnover rates among senior staff. Since the introduction of the senior management service, government departments have struggled to fill positions.

This has made it easy and attractive for public servants to move between departments, often negotiating a more senior position at each change. The result is high staff turnover rates at the senior management level. Not only has this led to the juniorisation of the senior management function, it has also created serious levels of instability.

As long as senior managers are only in their positions for short periods, processes and systems do not have time to stabilise before a new manager introduces his or her own management style or priority programmes. Induction and training of new staff is made difficult  and the development of a coherent corporate or organisational culture, which socialises public servants into the norms and value of a citizen-focused public service, is severely compromised.

The effects of the new "managerialism" have been uneven. It has arguably improved efficiency in already well-established and functioning organisations. But in those parts of the country where institutions were weak or new it has deflected attention from what is needed to make them effective: the unglamorous work of organisational building, putting in place reliable administrations, designing processes and implementing systems.

This analysis helps to understand the drivers of corruption too. Corruption in the public sector is often ascribed to the moral decline of political leaders and public servants. The argument is improbable, given that the point of comparison is with leaders of the National Party and the apartheid government.

Reducing corruption to a moral phenomenon, however, is counterproductive. It obscures the relationship of corruption with the institutional environment in which our public servants work. Unstable organisations without proper processes and systems are ripe for misuse; ripe, that is, for the abuse of public office for private gain – the legal definition of corruption. This opens up new strategies for combating corruption, other than moral rejuvenation.

It is the highly uneven institutional character of the state that gives South Africa its colonial or developing world features, and not just the uneven distribution of wealth. More attention needs to be given to building the institutions of the public sector rather than simply transforming them. Recognising this need requires revising some deeply ingrained conceptions of the apartheid state and the challenges of the post-apartheid one, especially within the ANC.

Ivor Chipkin is the director of the Public Affairs Research Institute. Sarah Meny-Gibert is its research manager. Click here for more information