Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has turned what was almost a dysfunctional department under former minister Richard Baloyi into an effective engine of government in less than two years.
First, she managed to convince hostile public sector unions to sign a multiyear wage agreement with the government, which has reduced the number of strikes in the public service. Described by some of her peers as the "Iron Lady", Sisulu has also pushed hard for the Public Administration Management (PAM) Bill, which aims to bar civil servants from doing business with the government.
Sisulu this week unveiled a new school of government, which will provide compulsory training for public servants, and spoke to the Mail & Guardian after the launch.
Do you intend doing away with cadre deployment, particularly in key government positions?
Our position on this matter is very clear: it does not matter which party you belong to, it does not matter if you are a cadre or not, as long as you are qualified and respect the Constitution of the country. We have made a call to all political parties to train their members if they want them to be in government. Our systems must be so professional that they see through party lines – they must see skills, dedication and commitment – that's what we are about. There is too much emphasis on cadre deployment in a country with so many political parties.
So we need to standardise our employment policies. We must have national standards to be able to say, for a chief executive you need to have these qualifications across the board. So if you are a member of the DA [Democratic Alliance] or ANC and you have those qualifications and you do well in an interview then we employ you.
The public service has clear rules on how to separate political interest and the public service, [and] we … monitor that. Cabinet has approved a framework of appointing senior managers and that's our guideline.
Do you agree with Planning Minister Trevor Manuel that government officials first need to be loyal to the public service before their political parties?
Yes, public servants are not politicians, they must be loyal to the Constitution and the laws of the country. We all agree.
What have you identified as the root cause for poor service delivery and the high level of corruption in the public service?
There are a number of issues that lead to poor service delivery – laziness, lack of performance management, moonlighting and lack of skills. But there is a serious problem with performance management of officials and general accountability when it comes to job descriptions. We need to deal with corruption before it happens, we need to focus on prevention and the development of modern IT systems to detect and prevent fraud. We need regular financial analysis of our officials. We also need to review how we allocate tenders or projects, [asking] is this the best model?
At Sita [the South African State Information Technology Agency] we are looking at removing officials from issuing tenders, and many other modern technology initiatives. There is temptation when officials have so much power; they are vulnerable, we need to manage that. We need to also make the punishment very painful when you are found to have committed fraud. So it is a combination of prevention, regular analysis, aggressive law enforcement and painful punishment.
We have the anti-corruption bureau in the PAM Bill currently before Cabinet. We want to introduce an institution that has powers to discipline officials within a short period of time and also has the capacity to assist other departments. We need to deal with irregular expenditure and maladministration.
Do you believe the new state school is the solution for lazy and selfish public servants who sabotage the government's effort to alleviate poverty
We think their salaries are enough to motivate them. This government pays very well compared to other developing countries. We need to manage our employees better. Senior managers must ensure that all employees are at work on time, [and that they are] assigning projects and delivering.
We need to start with accounting officers – they must be held liable for the total performance of their organisations. The school is not a solution but it will contribute to producing a public servant who is committed to meeting and exceeding expectations.
But managers must manage.
Some have questioned the spending of hundreds of millions of rands on a school to train government officials to do the job they are hired to do in the first place.
Most successful companies and organisations have a policy of lifelong learning. If we do not keep training our public servants in this world of technology and innovation, we will not enhance productivity and many of our public servants will lose their jobs. The world is changing and we need to change with it. You know at home affairs they have introduced the smart ID – what do you do with all those people who used to produce the green ID [book]? You retrain them. We are in the age of electronic project management and so on.
We also need to develop junior managers to [become] senior managers. Universities produce a qualified employee, but we are looking for a committed cadre who respects and breathes the Constitution. That [cadre], no one can produce for us.
What will happen to officials who continue to perform poorly or commit acts of corruption even after they've attended the government school?
Through proper performance management you are able to take action when necessary. It's a process, but we will need to retrain some and redeploy some; it is our commitment to retrain and develop our staff. When all that has failed we will take action in line with our policies.
How long do you believe it would take before we see a corruption free and an effective public service capable of delivering services to the poor
It is our vision, we are working hard on it. We have the support of Cabinet and Parliament, so we will get there.
Some in the labour movement are unhappy that only officials will be forced to attend government school while politicians, including members of Parliament, will not be affected.
Our priority as the department is to address skills and capacity problems in the public service. Politicians are managed by speakers [of Parliaments, national and provincial], not us. But we will develop courses and special short programmes to assist new members of Parliament and provincial legislatures to assist them with oversight of the public service.
Are you experiencing resistance from officials who will no longer be allowed to do business with government?
Not at all, many public servants have welcomed this. We are encouraged by many [officials in national and provincial] departments who have written to us to say: "Good, when do we start?"
What about the high vacancy rate in the public service?
Cabinet said all vacancies must be filled. We are busy with it.
How far is the process to review the Ministerial Handbook and what are some of the changes we should expect?
We will complete it soon."Public servants are not politicians, they must be loyal to the Constitution and the laws of the country.