Editorial: Service delivery hit by DG circus

Directors general are very well paid, and for good reason. For a salary of about R1.7-million a year they head the departments that are the supposed engine rooms of the state. Their job is to ensure that our tax rands go towards vital social services such as water, electricity, education, health and social grants. They act as the policy implementers and accounting officers in all spheres of government.

Or that’s the theory. The reality is that the extraordinary turnover of directors general in South Africa has systematically weakened government performance and costs a fortune in salaries for sidelined officials.

This is neither new nor unique to the Zuma administration. But our report this week, based on an analysis of directors general in 45 departments between 2004 and 2014, starkly shows the scale of the problem. The churn is particularly stark in departments such as public works, public service, water and basic education. In only 19 departments did the director general serve out his or her full contract. And it’s getting worse: just eight of the 74 directors general employed after May 2009 completed their terms by the end of the subsequent five-year period.

The 28 directors general whose tenure was cut short were either paid out or “redeployed” elsewhere in government, so the cost of the bureaucratic merry-go-round runs into tens of millions of rands every year. Former public service minister Lindiwe Sisulu tried to find a solution for the growing number of out of work directors general by seconding them to a newly formed compliance office within her department, where they could earn their salaries.

And this goes on as South Africans experience continuing shortfalls in basic services. For example, hundreds of Eastern Cape teachers went unpaid for months. Significantly, the director general of basic education was suspended early last year – to be followed by a procession of acting officials. The water affairs and sanitation department has had an acting head since February last year, when the director general was suspended.

Stability implies efficiency: Public Service Commission research found that where the head of a department remains in the post for longer than three years, performance improved. One positive development is that, since the current Cabinet was appointed, there has been no major change in the ranks of directors general (though too many still serve in an acting capacity). This trend needs to be reinforced by the systematic professionalisation of the public service.

The government’s professed aim is to increase the contracted service of directors general to an average of four years by 2019. Only by creating an echelon of politically neutral and skilled administrators, equipped to serve any minister or party, can such stability be achieved.

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