OP-ED

We must preserve the State’s capability to address people’s needs

By Kirsten Pearson 25 February 2019

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni at the press conference before he delivered his 2019 Budget speech in Parliament on February 20, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images)

While those who critique the public sector as being bloated may welcome the moves by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to reduce public sector staff costs as necessary and decisive, I would argue that we need to move beyond the usual critiques in order to have a nuanced conversation about the role of government officials.

Currently, the wage bill relating to public servants is in the spotlight. In his Budget speech, Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, announced that just over half of the expenditure reductions come from cuts to compensation budgets.

The Minister outlined that national and provincial compensation budgets will be reduced by R27-billion over the next three years. And that the first step is to allow older public servants who want to do so, to retire early. The compensation budget will also be cut by putting limits on overtime and bonus payments, as well as pay progression. And, opined the Minister, the system of staffing our diplomatic missions is unjustified and should be reviewed urgently.

Immediately after the announcement, Public Service and Administration Minister Ayanda Dlodlo hastened to assure South Africans that an early retirement programme will be very well managed and will not lead to a brain drain. Minister Dlodlo also said that a request for early retirement will be considered with due regard given to the skills needs of each department and that scarce skills such as those of doctors and maths teachers won’t be lost.

Minister Dlodlo was no doubt picking up on the concerns of those who point out that, at a time when we need them, we may lose the most experienced public servants and we can ill-afford that when it comes to frontline service delivery. On the other side of the debate, there are those who have pointed out that maybe we do need younger leaders. In true South African style, there are some amusing critiques of the gerontocracy on social media.

While those who critique the public sector as being bloated may welcome these moves as necessary and decisive, I would argue that we need to move beyond the usual critiques in order to have a nuanced conversation about the role of government officials. Whether a specific change is beneficial or harmful often has to do with how it is implemented. If South Africans are looking to government officials to nurture the seeds of growth and renewal, what will it take? Perhaps, to have a more nuanced conversation, we need to reconcile some contradictions and tease out intertwined issues.

One seeming contradiction in the 2019 Budget is that at the same time as cutting the compensation budget, the Minister of Finance reminded us that the President has set five tasks of which task five is to strengthen the capacity and capability of the state to address the needs of the people.

Treasury has also outlined in its budget that improved state capacity is needed for higher and more inclusive growth. How exactly do you improve state capacity while needing to reduce the compensation budget? Will reduced bonus payments and pay progression opportunities to incentivise indifference among already dejected officials?

We need to understand who has been leaving the public service and why. Through the revelations at commissions of inquiry, it has become clear that the State Capture project has entailed a systematic effort to push certain officials out of key roles. Many vacancies have arisen due to this. Is an HR review in key departments and State-owned Entities targeted by State Capture necessary to assess where labour abuses have taken place? Which roles currently have officials acting in them and what impact is this having? Are acting officials managing to do their initial jobs at the same time as the acting position, and what are the impacts on service delivery?

Besides officials being pushed out of their roles, toxic workplace cultures are not conducive to attracting and retaining talented individuals. To what extent have we seen a flight of talent due to officials being frustrated and worn down by working in institutions where bullying or lacklustre performance are part of the work culture? How is the government contemplating bringing about culture change within departments?

Appointments to certain roles such as Director General and Municipal Manager are made as five-year contract appointments. What impact does the contracting modality have on the ability of individuals not secure in their tenure to withstand certain requests?

How will those officials who now step up into more senior positions and take up greater leadership responsibilities be supported in their tasks?

In South Africa, such a large proportion of the population has been systematically denied a quality education. This is a phenomenon that not only occurred during apartheid, but even now the student movement is highlighting the issues of access to education. That means that a lot of people have entered the workforce, including government, under-capacitated for the tasks at hand.

Even if an official desires to improve their skills and has the determination to do so, affordability and the time to do so is a challenge. What kinds of workable solutions that don’t disrupt service delivery can be found to build the capacity of government officials at the same time as they work? How well are we doing at keeping up with the changing global environment that means that one’s initial education becomes outdated fairly quickly?

Emerging technologies that enable online education may hold some options. In some countries, being a government official is accompanied by compulsory training and examination requirements. Would those kinds of approaches work here? Are universities offering public administration degree programmes well-matched to the needs in South Africa?

To me, the words, “a capable state” are the signifier of a state where the offices of state institutions are peopled with officials who are intellectually curious and remain on a constant journey of cultivating their professional skills and knowledge. How do we build a capable state? Perhaps the best people to answer are those hardy officials who deliver services with excellence, despite all the challenges in the environment. DM

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