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OP-ED

Corruption and a dysfunctional state: The interface between political leaders and public administration

(Illustrative image | Sources: Flickr / Jurgens van der Spuy / Flowcomm | Adobe Stock)

Coherence and efficiency can only be achieved on the back of a values-based (ethics and integrity) systemic professional public service that has the right technical and managerial skills. Further, such an endeavour can only be driven from the centre of government.

In the interface between public administration and political principals a typical scenario, repeated many times, is as follows:

A new minister is appointed. He wants his own person to head the institution under him. Before he throws out the director-general or chief executive officer of a particular state-owned entity (SOE), he campaigns against the incumbent, using the power of the state and his political power to smear him. Once the minister has had his way, the new DG applies the same playbook to replace some of the deputy DG’s or divisional heads and so on. Unplanned and unnecessary change is thus introduced into the system.

Each subsequent change of ministers and senior managers further weakens state structures. More damning is that this happens even when a minister is succeeded by a fellow member of the same party: it seems that the cascading instability cannot be avoided. Absurdly, on occasions, the new appointee’s disdain and fear extends even to the vehicles and office facilities of his predecessor. He demands new, different vehicles and facilities.

The reverberations arising from ministerial appointments also manifest in the boards of directors of SOEs, many of whom, as is evident from testimony to the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, were ethically challenged and certainly not competent. The roles, mandates and the boundaries between ministers, boards and heads of state institutions have become increasingly blurred. Governance suffers.

The environment thus created is manna to ambitious opportunists and unprincipled elements in society. They flatter the fragile egos of insecure leaders and gain access to the upper echelons, thus clogging the major arteries of government.

As explained earlier in this series, in South Africa today most state institutions are not appropriately designed, staffed and/or managed. Many of our managers and leaders are not systemic in their approach. Even those who are honest are mainly event- and transaction driven interventionists who invariably break the existing systems. In addition, almost all institutions suffer from the displacement of technical competence in their core business and in the management of its operations. Instead, layers of generalists have been hired and promoted. Many of these generalists are not systemic and have no incentives to learn the core businesses.

As a consequence, performance is erratic, there is a huge backlog, and the visibility of operations is impaired. Management is in continuous crisis mode. Collusion between corrupt and self-serving internal and external interests has become easier and overcomes limited resistance from the remaining pockets of integrity and good governance in the institutions.

The superhuman effort

Building a capable, efficient, democratic and a just state with rights and services for all has been a huge challenge, right from the start. The newly elected government in 1994 had to operate under the following conditions:

  • We were (and are) a deeply divided country;
  • There were (and are) great disparities in wealth and income;
  • Our history is one of oppression and the struggle for liberation;
  • There were various dissimilar segregated public service administrations; and
  • After 1994, many new entrants into public administration had limited or no exposure to public administration.

The challenge posed by all of the above required an almost superhuman effort for us to succeed.

With the amalgamation of all the public service structures in 1994, the systems that existed then came under great pressure and were weakened as a result, particularly since little was done to redesign and/or renew systems. At the heart of the white public service then was the PSC (Public Service Commission) which, inter alia, set norms and standards and managed the recruitment, appointment and careers of senior public servants. It always ensured that the public service was controlled by white Afrikaner males and pro-apartheid interests. In order to “level the playing fields” in the post-1994 dispensation, the PSC was neutered. As a result, what we now have is fragmentation with a great latitude of discretion: a recipe for further failure.

Stability helped the financial cluster

Prior to 2014, as many civil servants and politicians were trying to grapple with the administrative challenge, some public institutions started getting it right. The National Treasury, the Reserve Bank, the South African Revenue Service (SARS), Stats SA, the Financial Intelligence Centre, and the then Financial Services Board benefited from the fact that they functioned in a conducive and stable environment that did not interfere with their institutional independence.

Trevor Manuel served as minister of finance for three terms and Pravin Gordhan was the commissioner of SARS for a decade. Later, Gordhan succeeded Manuel. Both Manuel and Gordhan, among other governance measures, institutionalised a system of regular fortnightly formal reviews with the executive committees or management teams of the institutions reporting to them. These were well-organised, well-prepared and robust reviews where senior public servants were held accountable. More significantly, heads of state institutions established systems in their own organisations that would support this culture of being accountable. These meetings were not in the form of performance appraisals of individuals but were business reviews that focused on organisational outcomes. So, both the reviewer and reviewee were working together towards building operational excellence.

We, in the financial cluster, acknowledged that apartheid limited our exposure to public administration. We did not pretend that we knew everything. We stopped the self-inflicted haemorrhaging of our institutions, caused through voluntary retirement packages. We made it clear that we valued the “old timers”. We learnt from those we found there. We experimented. We made mistakes. We learnt voraciously from the private sector and from our counterparts in other countries.

Sadly, from 2014 there were six ministerial appointments in Finance: Nhlanhla Nene, Des van Rooyen, Gordhan (again in 2015), Malusi Gigaba, Nene (again in 2018) and currently Tito Mboweni. These took place during the Zuma years, causing untold instability.

As a result, the financial cluster also, is now not in good shape.

Models of public administration

In our aspirations to (re)build functionality in the state, there are different models for public administration to follow. At one end of the continuum is a professional bureaucratic public service that is fully protected from direct political interference. This model, among other things, will require highly qualified professional bureaucrats to enter the administration purely on merit-based selection. Decision-making will be grounded in the rule of law and in institutional mandates.

At the other end would be an administration that is shaped by a traditional and/or charismatic leader, who determines the form and the essence of the administration. Decision-making is then governed by what is prescribed by the leader.

Between the two ends there are variations. The US has features of both. A number of the most senior public officials are political appointments, while others, for example in law enforcement, are actually elected. However, the aforesaid appointments rest on a basis that is composed of professional bureaucrats.

Specific design failures

Specifically, the following features of the current South African public service are problematic:

  • There isn’t a system of managing the careers of public servants across the three spheres of government with provision for cross functional or multi-organisational exposure. A person recruited into one institution is there forever, thus incentivising job-hopping.
  • Recruitment norms are in the main left to individual institutions and there are too many lateral appointments who come from outside the government for the PSC or the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) to have any real control.
  • There isn’t an annual intake into the public service. Recruitment is in the main driven by appointments to individual vacancies. Such an approach makes it very difficult to plan recruitment and manage the careers of public servants. Among other things, it impacts negatively on selection processes, formal induction, institutionalising probation, formal universal training of all entrants.
  • The manner of appointing heads of institutions, managing their careers, the short duration of their contracts, and the politicisation of their roles, discourage capable candidates from entering the public service.

These factors are major causes of the dysfunction and instability in public service institutions, irrespective of the calibre of the heads of institutions.

The way forward

We believe that coherence and efficiency can only be achieved on the back of a values-based (ethics and integrity) systemic professional public service that has the right technical and managerial skills. Further, such an endeavour can only be driven from the centre of government.

To achieve this, the PSC should be enabled to play its constitutional role of ensuring a fair and effective public service. (In this context “public service” refers to public servants and not the design of public institutions as a whole.) Unfortunately, many of the PSC’s duties are now in fact undertaken by the DPSA, which is itself subject to the prevailing instability and dysfunctionality of state institutions.

South Africa has to find solutions to the structural and operational problems of the public service and its interface with political principals. A contextual issue is our pure proportional voting system at the national and provincial levels, which places enormous power in the hands of party bosses. In the short term, we cannot expect any change in the electoral laws as hierarchies of the main political parties are unlikely to support it. In any event, there is no silver bullet to address such complex problems.

This has to be a medium to long-term effort. It will take painstaking and dogged determination, day after day, until traction is gained that will lead to successive years of repairing and improving productivity. Much like the effect of compound interest, sustained fixing and increased productivity over a number of years will grow the base-capability of state institutions.

As argued previously: “When teams of managers and specialists with integrity and competence are put in place, when policies are improved, when broken processes and procedures are repaired, when accurate reporting is restored, leakages – be it due to inefficiencies, theft and/or corruption – will be reduced. Systemic interventions, together with continuous improvement of performance, will protect the institutions into the future.”

Recommended initiatives

Starting small, the following can be done:

  • Mobilising and organising civil society in a values-building programme;
  • Initiating a small number of well-designed programmes to make selected institutions, as a whole, functional and effective;
  • Initiating a centrally driven systemic improvement of a few key functions that cut across the whole of government, such as procurement, management of government employees and operations management; and
  • Rationalising, depoliticising and rebuilding law enforcement agencies as parts of one interdependent system.

These are examples of a top-down approach. They are deliberately prioritised to a few institutions and to a few cross-cutting functions because our capabilities are limited.

In addition, that effort must be complemented by a bottom-up approach so that the two approaches reinforce and influence each other.

A bottom-up approach can be to leverage the islands of “excellence” that still exist in the public service despite the corruption and incompetence. Some police stations, clinics, and schools are well run. As citizens we can instantly recognise them when we are there. These places are led by exceptional local leaders who often go through hardship and personal sacrifice to maintain relatively good local working environments. Supporting such islands, learning from them, and growing their impact on the surrounding environment will be an important part of the overall plan.

An enabling environment

An enabling environment is critical to the success of the initiatives recommended above. There needs to be a consensus by all political parties to address the interface between politicians and administration. That consensus must:

  • Acknowledge that the public service must be protected from party-political machinations, including intra-party feuding;
  • Commit to stop destabilising the public service and also commit to a professional public administration that owes its allegiance to the Constitution and not to politicians;
  • Clarify the distinction and the interdependency between technical, managerial and policy capability and decision making; and
  • Lead to effective changes in the design of public administration and its interface with politicians to overcome the inherent fragmentation and instability.

In order to effectively combat corruption, we have to build efficient and effective institutions. Both the building of integrity and capability must be included in one overall plan, that recognises:

  • Strong systems are the key to strong institutions;
  • Since the tasks are immense and our capability is limited, we have to prioritise;
  • Beyond the values and competency of individuals, we must address inbuilt design flaws and weaknesses that give rise to fragmentation and instability in the public service; and
  • We have to shift the general discourse away from political labels and slogans to real concrete issues. DM

Pillay is a former SARS deputy commissioner. Kesavan and Pikie were both senior managers at SARS. They all resigned in 2015. This is Part Three of their paper on overcoming corruption and dysfunction.

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All Comments 3

  • Excellent analysis and sobering. I like this sentence:
    “Much like the effect of compound interest, sustained fixing and increased productivity over a number of years will grow the base-capability of state institutions.”
    Good governance and a capable public service both are forms of social capital, and indeed, as one reinvests into capital, the compound interest effect becomes powerful over time!

  • This is a good analysis of the root causes and solutions. I like the focus on quick wins. Can the authors comment on the likelihood of implementation?