Public sector reform is essential to ensure that the most vulnerable receive the benefits of our progressive social policies. The death of 144 patients in the Life Esidimeni tragedy is symbolic of broader public sector failures. Other public-sector failures seem less significant or inconsequential. To prevent future tragedies of this nature we must acknowledge that they are not isolated events and are symptoms of systemic public-sector failure.
The State Capture project played a role in weakening the state, but it is not the only driver of a weakened public service. Rather, it has amplified and accelerated weaknesses which were already present and brought into the public eye the extent of the problem.
A dysfunctional public sector should be of concern to everyone, because a capable state is required if we are to achieve a number of developmental objectives. In this piece I explore the nature of Public Sector failure, and in a second piece I analyse possible processes for strengthening weakened state institutions.
The challenge with analysing failure in the public sector is that, by many standards, the South African public sector functions quite well. Scholars are enrolled in schools, patients attend clinics and other processes seem to work. Unfortunately, much of this day-to-day functioning is built on the back of precarious systems, and patched solutions, which may fail at any point. Service delivery demands and shortages of equipment and material amplify the pressure on the system. In addition, a nationwide picture of general functioning hides a complete breakdown of services in certain places.
Because we are a democratic country, the biggest challenge with state institutions is that they do not centre on human needs. Despite many public consultation mechanisms, it is a rare instance in which granular local issues are fed into policy. This leads to an environment in which policy is not as adapted as it may be to local issues. Public consultation processes which are not truly participative help to build a sense of government inaccessibility which leads to frustration being expressed through other channels.
In addition to the lack of inclusion in forming policy, many members of the general public experience public sector officials and systems in a sub-par to criminal manner. From mothers being assaulted while giving labour, to untold hostile experiences with the police (here, and here), the examples are too many to enumerate. If an individual wishes to challenge the state, holding the relevant officials to account can be almost impossible, especially if you are poor or marginalised. It is important to remember that family members of the Life Esidimeni victims spent time seeking to raise the alarm, to no noticeable effect. In the absence of effective mechanisms for accountability, a culture of impunity reigns.
The culture of impunity means that it is easy for interest groups to capture state processes and use them for their own gain. The large-scale capture of projects such as the Estina Dairy Farm has been well-publicised, but we tend to forget the smaller-scale corruption and capture by interest groups. There are countless stories of officials asking for bribes or local processes being subverted for certain interest groups. The scant protection for whistle-blowers means that corruption persists unhindered.
The leadership culture in the public sector does not foster internal accountability. There seems to be a pervasive “command and control” leadership style in the public sector which could be clearly seen in the Life Esidimeni case, where leadership could over-ride many well-defined objections from subordinates. As the case shows, this culture means that weak or corrupt leaders can operate without challenge, innovation is stifled and on-the-ground experience is not included in policy-making.
A study of evidence-based policy-making in the public sector has shown that, while our national frameworks are robust and policy driven, policy decisions on a departmental level may not be driven by evidence. This means that the local conditions for policy implementation are not interrogated. In addition, policy design often does not allow for a feedback loop to assess whether policy assumptions are sound. This means both that policies may not speak to actual conditions and the governance metrics imposed may not be useful. It is important to improve the evidence obtained from monitoring and evaluation in order to improve decision-making.
Public sector servants are often overly focused on meeting governance metrics rather than on impact. Civil servants concentrate on meeting governance targets because this is what their performance is measured on and meeting governance targets can be overwhelming. A well-known example of problematic governance targets is for teachers. Teachers spend less than half of their time at school actually teaching, and a great deal of time is devoted to conforming to administrative requirements; the response to poor performance is often to measure more, which adds an additional burden to a system which is struggling.
One of the reasons why the state system has not collapsed is that many public servants do the best they can despite the adverse environment. Public servants are often very aware of the large gap that exists between ideal service provision and the service that is offered. A great deal of time and energy is spent on patching challenges in the system. Systems and processes do not support delivery, and resources are constrained. This leads to low levels of morale and capable resources seeking to leave the public sector. A good example of the frustrations experienced by public servant can be found in this account of a healthcare worker in a public hospital.
It would be easy to get despondent in the face of the challenges outlined above, but it is possible to dramatically improve delivery in the public sector. In my next piece, I outline an approach for improving the sector, but an important step in addressing this challenge is identifying areas of good practice within the public sector to learn from them. For example, notwithstanding the troubled few years of the South African Revenue Service, the transformation of the service into a single service was a remarkable feat.
Another building block in this process is recognising and strengthening the many competent civil servants within the sector with adequate systems and processes. In the face of the many challenges in the sector, a massive organisational overhaul is tempting, but I will argue that an approach which pilots discrete system improvements may be more effective and may provide much needed data. DM
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"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon