Up to R44-million a year has been spent on the government’s most senior civil servants sitting idle and not doing the jobs they were hired to do, the Mail & Guardian has determined.
In the first detailed study of the high turnover of the heads of department in government between May 2009 and May this year, the M&G has established that a total of 177 permanent and acting directors general (DGs) have headed up our 45 government departments in the past five years.
Twenty-eight heads of department in the period studied did not work their full terms, which means the government usually has to pay them out for the remainder of their contract.
As of April, a director general is paid between R1 570 284 and R1 768 893 a year for the duration of his or her contract, according to the department of public service and administration.
That means the government would have potentially spent at least R44?million a year in salaries for top out-of-work civil servants if they did not choose to take a percentage of their remaining contract value, which sources close to the process say is rarely the case. In addition, at least another R44?million a year would have been spent on their replacements.
It is difficult to arrive at an exact number, because department heads can ask for a “redetermination” where they leave early and receive a percentage of their remaining salary, according to the department. Yet directors general who work in government told the M&G that most prefer to be deployed at a similar pay grade.
Key departments crucial to service delivery, such as public works, local government and basic education, have borne the brunt of the instability. Moreover, the constant changes at the top of the civil service also make it difficult to hold departments accountable.
The department of public service and administration – ironically, the department tasked with improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the public service – has changed heads nine times in the five years since Zuma was elected president.
Now, the government is so concerned about the costly churn of department heads and the negative effect on service delivery that the presidency issued a directive shortly after the May elections to new ministers to hold off axing the directors general in their new ministries, a source confirmed to the M&G, as had become the norm immediately after an election.
Stability at the top of government is vital to the effective functioning and performance of a department, according to the Public Service Commission.
In an extensive study published in 2012, where the commission interviewed key staff in departments with long-serving, new and acting directors general, all those interviewed said “staff morale and organisational effectiveness is negatively affected by a constant change of leadership at the highest level”.
Meanwhile, 90% of those interviewed said that when a head of department has been in a position for three or more years, the institution shows “signs of continued improvement as a result of relative stability”.
Often it is the president himself who has caused the instability at the top. Zuma made changes to his Cabinet five times in his first term.
“Zuma has reshuffled more than any one thought any president can reshuffle,” said political analyst Professor Susan Booysen. “Almost [always] whenever a reshuffle happens, then the DG has to change as well. Ministers want their own people. They don’t want people loyal to the previous minister.”
In some cases, however, it is not necessarily the number of different ministers a department has, but simply the minister that creates the churn. Under minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries worked through eight directors general in five years. Three were appointed but their contracts were ended prematurely and there have been five acting directors general.
Suspicions of impropriety
The department has been plagued by suspicions of impropriety to do with its granting of fishing licences. In addition, the public protector found that the minister had acted recklessly in the awarding of a tender to the Sekunjalo consortium for the management of the department’s research and patrol ships.
The department of public works burned through two permanent and five acting directors general over a five-year period. During this time, the department has been embroiled in two scandals: security upgrades at Zuma’s home at Nkandla and the police building lease scandal. The Special Investigating Unit has recommended that two of its acting directors general and one permanent director general be charged for their involvement in Nkandla.
It is, however, often difficult to know if corruption charges are legitimate or just an attempt to oust a director general.
“If DGs stand their ground against certain contracts and appointments, there are ways and means to get rid of someone,” said one former director general, who declined being named.
“The minister can prod others to throw dirt at the DG and you can create an impression of things. I’ve seen all sorts of devious little tricks being played. You hear a lot about it in the media as well. Sometimes it appears there are rumours and stories that say ‘so and so are corrupt’, but in fact all of that has been planted to get rid of someone.”
Directors general are sometimes, indeed, responsible for corrupt activities. Sources who have worked with ousted top officials said this is often a structural problem, because they had such poor security of tenure and service with little benefits in the long term that they would “load their javelin”, as one put it, and find tenders and kickbacks to feather their nest when they were inevitably moved out of service.
As the equivalent of a chief executive and accounting officer, directors general play a pivotal leadership role, but the trend in the government has been towards an overreliance on acting directors general, appointing them for a short contract or suspending their contracts prematurely.
This has led to them taking safe decisions and avoiding bold and potentially unpopular moves for the common good as they consider themselves “just holding the fort for a short period”, said respondents in the Public Service Commission report.
“The DGs know they will be probably redeployed somewhere else, and don’t want to make enemies in their own departments, because they will need those networks again,” said Booysen. “As long as they have been politically useful and been part of the big project of protecting the president and his close associates, they know they will be fine, so they often play the bigger political game instead of the governance game.”
There are departments that set a positive example. The department of science and technology has had the same director general, Phil Mjwara, since 2006. The M&G once received a draft of the auditor general’s report, which pointed to irregular spending in his department. Within two hours, Mjwara provided detailed responses to our questions: where the money went, how the spending had been irregular and what mechanisms had been put in place so that it would not happen again.