/ 19 October 2018

Don’t cut our civil servants. Train them

What makes the world so confusing at the moment is that it is not all bad news
What makes the world so confusing at the moment is that it is not all bad news, says the writer (John McCann)

Government has never been more difficult. The demands have never been greater. Huge skill and great leadership are required against a backdrop of enormous complexity, the snowballing rush of populism and the thump of nasty nationalist authoritarianism.

Context and history are everything. The interconnected global challenges of security, employment, social fragility and inequality and of the threat posed by climate change have deep historical roots that need to be understood if those charged with governing are to navigate a safe pathway out of the crisis humanity faces.

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Governments need to assess whether they have the skill set, as well as the right structures, to contend with the wicked problems they face, and to act fast to ensure they stand the best chance of equipping those in public service with the capabilities needed.

At a time when a fiscal crunch is squeezing the public service wage bill of South Africa, and arguments in favour of cutting the number of public servants in an allegedly “bloated” public service are not easy to counter, it is worth pausing to reflect on the question of whether it is not the numbers that are wrong but the skills and deployment, as well as the structure of the employer — the state.

I am reliably informed, for example, that, per capita, South Africa employs a relatively modest number of public servants — three for every 100 citizens — when compared with a range of countries as diverse as Botswana (six) and Norway (15).

Surely it is what public servants do and how well they do it that should be the determining factor in deciding whether the state’s human resource capacity is too big or too small. As Albert Einstein is credited with observing: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

So, as South Africa approaches the quarter-century point in its history as a democratic nation, it is worth recognising that a great deal has changed since 1994, and the question that needs to be asked is: Is the public service fit for purpose?

Take the international relations sector of government: it represents a microcosm of the bigger picture.

In 1994, the world seemed a relatively benign, sleepily complacent place. Liberal democracy had ostensibly “won” the Cold War; it was, to use political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s phrase, the “end of history” and, according to academic Samuel Huntington’s thesis, a third wave of democracy was washing across the globe. Almost 25 years later, four main catalysts of profound geopolitical change now drive international relations.

First, since 9/11 the security agenda has shifted substantially, as new risks from non-state terrorist groups became evident, throwing the old rule book on state security out of the window and adding a further layer of fraught complexity to issues of cultural identity and diversity, as well as to policy-making on immigration and refugees.

Second, economic globalisation and the neoliberal paradigm ran away with itself and, intoxicated by its own hyperbole, allowed the free market to run riot — leading, inexorably, to the global financial crisis of 2008. That, in turn, has directly induced a sequence of sociopolitical events and trends that are mimicking the period of history that followed the Great Crash of 1929, not least in the form of the rise of the nationalist right.

As a result, the multilateral, rules-based world order that was so painstakingly built in the decades following World War II is now imperilled, giving rise to difficult dilemmas for political leaders, diplomats and policy-makers: Reform, or dismantle and start afresh?

Certainly, the austerity measures that were often prescribed in response to the 2008 crash have led directly to major political shocks — new Brexit research presented this past week reveals that the “leave” vote was highest in those areas where austerity cuts to benefits and other social wages were deeper than in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Third, climate change has become the number-one global catalyst for socioeconomic vulnerability and, in some cases such as Syria, an additional driver of conflict and war. In 1994, understanding the threat posed by carbon dioxide emissions was at the foothills of the mountain of evidence that has now been built about how anthropogenic conduct and choices, both industrial and consumerist, have created the global warming that now endangers the future of our children and grandchildren.

Regrettably, good political leadership has been lacking, and the urgency implied by the science has often not been met by concomitant action. United Nations secretary general António Guterres has now put climate action at the centre of what he calls the need for a “diplomatic surge”.

Indeed, part of what makes the world so confusing at the moment is that it is not all bad news. Many businesses are waking up to their own leadership responsibilities and are innovating and transforming. And, at a global governance level, 2015 was a watershed year: the sustainable development goals — which provide a very useful framework for concerted, integrated action everywhere — were agreed to and later in the year the Paris Treaty was the positive outcome of the most delicate as well as the most complex global negotiation ever conducted.

Now, policy-makers and political leaders have to deliver, and to do so they have to grapple with politically awkward transitions. South Africa, for example, has to rekindle its renewable energy industrial strategy, which had been pushed into the siding by the rent-seeking graft of the state capturers at Eskom.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, on the evidence of his commanding performance when asked about this during presidential question time in Parliament a few weeks back, clearly “gets” the need for the transition, but may well be reluctant to appear to be risking coal jobs before he has secured a fresh mandate in next year’s election.

Interestingly, as President Donald Trump’s United States leaves the Paris Treaty stage, so there is a vacuum for others to claim the space — a strategic opportunity that the Chinese are clearly seizing and that Ramaphosa would be wise to jump on to, to shore up his global leadership credentials and affirm the sustainability of his country’s own economic management trajectory — and its potential value as a destination for new (green) investment.

Fourth and last, the digital revolution cuts across everything in a head-spinning web of contradictory pulls and pushes: on the one hand, it has driven exponential innovation that is often a force for progressive good — look, for example, at how Bellingcat is helping to solve criminal investigations such as the attempted murder by two operatives of Russia’s GRU intelligence service in Salisbury in the United Kingdom.

On the other, in the hands of the wrong people — such as cyberterrorists and the GRU — it threatens to undermine local democracy, basic human privacy rights and the stability of the banking system.

Equally, tech is very much a part of the solution to climate change, but automation poses a thorny challenge to the future of work at a time when the demographic bulge, at least in sub-Saharan Africa, means that as many as 200-million better-educated new entrants will need to be accommodated by the job market, according to the World Economic Forum.

It is an age, then, of paradox and uncertainty. But it is also an age of “unreason” — with Trump as its leading advocate.

As a result, traditional parties of the centre are being pushed towards the extremities: witness the ANC on land expropriation in response to the fear of being outflanked by the Economic Freedom Fighters,or, now, the Democratic Alliance’s populist manifesto commitment to closed borders — a stark contrast to the “open borders” approach of the Greens in Germany, who doubled their vote in an intriguing election result in Bavaria last Sunday.

Never has the importance of the democratic state as the protector of the global commons been clearer and yet more fragile. In South Africa, state capture has further eroded its legitimacy.

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Public servants sit in the middle of all this confusion. Many of their political masters and mistresses may be lost at sea, confounded by the overwhelming scale of the challenges or floundering in the face of populist prescriptions.

Hence, it is imperative that they are properly skilled and prepared, so they not only can meet the challenge but also to turn it into strategic opportunity. Rather than being cut for the sake of the saving in numbers, the public service should be empowered to act and serve.

Richard Calland is associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town