Bill aims for a better public service

Culling waste and inefficiency in the public ­service and finding ways to curb the country's "ominous" public-sector wage bill, in particular, is a driving force behind the changes to the management of the public service that Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu wants to see instituted.

Sisulu was speaking to the Mail & Guardian as the new Public Administration Management Bill was gazetted for public comment last Friday.

The overhaul Sisulu's department wants to see set down in law includes proposed provisions to stop public servants doing business with the state, on pain of dismissal; mandatory year-long "cooling off periods" for public servants involved in procurement who leave the department; fines and possible cancellations of contracts for service providers who do not adhere to legislative provisions; requirements that exams be taken by public servants as prerequisites to certain appointments or transfers; and tougher prescripts for the re-employment of officials who have been dismissed for misconduct.

Curbing corruption and its accompanying cost, and professionalising the public service, however, only forms part of this work. The Bill is aimed at creating uniform norms and standards in a bid to increase the efficiency of the public service and to save stretched taxpayer rands.

"There is nothing as cost-consuming as an inefficient system," said Sisulu. The state "cannot sustain a wage bill as high as we have".

But the rising wage bill included everything the government spent under the broad ambit of "personnel", extending beyond salaries for public servants, she said.

A three-year wage agreement
Examples included payments to government employees undergoing protracted disciplinary proceedings and costly absenteeism that saw the state continue to maintain staff who did not come to work.

"It's a system that over time has evolved into this massive entity and, once we know what it is that we want, we are able to set standards and … have savings," she said.

On entering her post last year, Sisulu succeeded in negotiating a three-year wage agreement with public service unions. The agreement, while bringing about some predictability, still added an additional R43-billion to the government's medium-term spending plans. This was reflected in the budget this year, when Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan revealed how heavily the state had dipped into its contingency reserves to meet spending requirements.

According to the Reserve Bank, the consolidated general government wage bill remains historically high at a ratio of 36.2% of total expenditure for the past fiscal year.

"We are hoping that we will make [the public service] more agile, more effective, more efficient and more cost beneficial," Sisulu said. "We are also hoping that it will become quite clear what posts are not necessary, what post are redundant and what posts are funded yet vacant."

The Bill also provides for the creation of an internal anticorruption bureau to investigate ­misconduct and to institute disciplinary proceedings if that is requested by the head of an institution.

The extent to which public servants were doing business with the state and the rising incidence of conflicts of interest had to end, said Sisulu, as these acts were crowding out legitimate entrepreneurs.

Revamping the public service architecture will not be an easy task, however. According to the department, the state employs an estimated 1.6-million people in national, provincial and local government.

The Bill has had a number of incarnations, with efforts to overhaul the state's administrative machinery going back as far as 2007, when the first draft version emerged. Concern about the centralisation of power in national government and the impact this would have on the constitutionally protected powers of local and provincial government resulted in the draft Bill being withdrawn in 2008.

The Democratic Alliance warned in the past the bill allowed the ANC-led national government to interfere with the running of municipalities and provinces, leaving officials accountable, not to their elected officials but to a centralised democracy.

But Sisulu said the state was not seeking to centralise control of this "monster of 1.6-million" people. "We want [the public service] managed as it is now, but in line with certain norms and standards, agreed to by all," she said.

Although the power to make appointments would still reside in the appropriate spheres of government, they would have to be in line with set standards.

Staff transfer
The Bill does, however, include a proposal to transfer staff more easily across different arms of government without the consent of the employee, provided it takes into account certain factors, including the operational requirements of the affected institutions.

Where secondments or transfers take place to or from a provincial and municipal entity, the affected institutions must consent to the transfer.

The Bill also intends to enable the steady eradication of ­"unjustifiable disparities" in conditions of employment and pay between the different arms of the public service.

Trade unions have, however, expressed unhappiness with the Bill.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union is concerned that it will affect collective bargaining within the public service, according to the union's spokesperson, Sizwe Pamla.

Insufficient agreement had been reached during negotiations on the Bill at the National Economic and Development Labour Council, he said, and the union wanted greater clarity on its impact before the ­legislative work began.

The union has also hit out against what it calls a "myth" that the public service is bloated and overpaid. The rising wage bill was the result of the growth in the workforce that had to roll out the government's growing programmes, the union has argued.

Sisulu said that the state was committed to "taking [unions] along with us" throughout the process.

She said bargaining chambers within the public service would not be affected by the Bill.

Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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