How to grow an effective public service

South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) is unequivocal in its commitment to an efficient and effective public sector that is capable of delivering quality services to the country’s people. To achieve excellence, public servants must embrace a culture of continuous learning and deepen their professionalism.

The NDP also calls for a capable developmental state to partner with an active citizenry to achieve our growth and development objectives. This requires an agile state that is able to embed itself in the networks that bind state and society together to harness the innovative and transformative energies of all South Africans.

Building a capable developmental state requires public servants who are able to master the basics of public service and administration.
It also requires a contract between the state and the people — one that guarantees the uninhibited pursuit of the public good and optimal participation by an active citizenry in people-led growth and development initiatives. Capable developmental states increase wellbeing through socioeconomic development and growth, as well as by building people’s capacity to achieve their aspirations.

Disenchanted citizens who mobilise to highlight the shortcomings of service delivery evidenced in poor-quality roads and sanitation, as well as inadequate schooling facilities and health services, demonstrate the shortcomings of the human and institutional capacity of the state. In many cases the problems are clear, but the solutions are not. With finite resources, the public service is called on to deliver on infinite demands.

Considering these contradictory demands for both effectiveness and efficiency, how does a government ensure that it addresses the concerns of citizens? Can the public service be freed of the imperatives of individual and sectional interests in exchange for an undivided commitment to the collective public good?

These simple questions require straightforward solutions, articulated in a language and discourse that everyone can understand. The solutions are often not simple and, in most instances, require an active citizenry and visionary leadership at all levels of society, but they are urgently needed because the best way to build a capable and legitimate developmental state is through quality service delivery.

The solutions also demand an environment in which the state plays a strong leadership role rather than becoming big, controlling and domineering. The state must also synthesise, integrate and facilitate participation and inclusiveness rather than “deliver” to passive recipients or seek to control citizens.

Within the context of a rapidly changing global community grappling with technologically induced changes and deepening socioeconomic inequality, the modern state must be comfortable with managing complexity and uncertainty.

The National School of Government is a government department established to provide and facilitate education, training and development in the public sector. The school is being transformed into a leading institution for public sector learning and development as well as a centre for thought leadership involving the public, private and other societal sectors in support of the objectives of a capable and developmental state.

The school reports to the ministry of public service and administration and is responsible for training public servants on induction, leadership, management and administration matters. It targets public servants from all spheres of government and co-ordinates education and learning programmes and interventions nationally and internationally.

In the absence of relevant workplace learning and skills development, public servants that take up senior positions run the risk of overlooking critical tools that can be used to deal with the complexities of many service delivery challenges.

On March 9, the National School of Government launched the induction training of public service executive leaders — directors general and deputy directors general. In the cycle of learning, induction programmes lay the foundations for preparing a new public servant to work. Once they settle into their respective roles, further education and learning programmes will support them in strengthening their performance.

This training includes management development and skills-based programmes, providing the core skills for the effective management and implementation of government services, including citizen care.

Ongoing learning and development ensures that public servants are actively engaged, both face to face and online, including through communities of practice that the school facilitates. Being exposed to new approaches, research and information empowers public servants to perform optimally to ensure quality service delivery.

Through its executive induction programme, the school is focused on building public service leaders — managers and executives who serve and deliver. At all levels, public servants deliver when they have the commitment and will to perform, the knowledge and skills to work, and the organisational space and support systems to carry out their duties.

Not every work environment encourages the implementation of new learning initiatives, and executive managers must ensure the necessary workplace culture and environment is nurtured and sustained. Successful public servants are patriotic, on-board, passionate, committed and relentless in the pursuit of excellence for the public good. Because organisational culture and ethos define the way things are done, supportive executive leadership is in a position to set the standards to empower value-driven delivery.

Leaders who are innovative create a conducive environment for problem-solving, collective responsibility and teamwork. They also recognise formal and informal leadership and authority while understanding the application of regulations that enable the state to move from policy to execution. The leadership in the public service is increasingly under scrutiny from a restive and impatient citizenry. They must be supported from the start — so ready, set, go!

Professor Richard M Levin is the principal of the National School of Government

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