Maverick Citizen

PUBLIC SERVICE RETHINK OP-ED

Building a more capable and developmental state demands ditching the supply fetish

Building a more capable and developmental state demands ditching the supply fetish
Training programmes and providers cannot operate in isolation from the structural problems facing the sector. (Photo: eGovlab / Unsplash)

Education and training are important for any structure. But viewing skills proliferation as the silver bullet to eradicate challenges misses the mark. Training programmes and providers cannot operate in isolation from the structural problems facing the sector.

Cabinet’s approval in October 2022 of the National Framework Towards the Professionalisation of the Public Sector has ignited renewed debates about what is required to build a skilled and capable state able to deliver to the citizens of this country. If the government aspires to build such a state, what are the key impediments? 

An almost knee-jerk response is to look at skills. If we are to go down that path, we need to ask: Are skills the real issue, or is it a question of how skills planning happens in the public service sector?

Research by the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Researching Education and Labour (REAL) on behalf of the Public Service Sector Education and Training Authority (PSETA) gives policymakers important insights into the relationship between how skills planning happens and its impact on the process of building a capable public service sector workforce.

Before exploring some of the research findings, it is important to note that the research points to an important proviso. When contemplating what is needed to improve the functioning of the public service sector, skills in isolation should not be the primary preoccupation of policymakers. Instead, the researchers argue that we need to acknowledge that there are contextual factors which make any skills intervention alone almost irrelevant.

Unreliable data

In exploring the systems for skills planning in the sector, they say, the system that operates in three areas (demand, supply and attempted coordination between supply and demand) are of concern on a number of levels.

The skills gaps and occupational categories are based on what is already known about a capable developmental state, not on what is not working or might be needed.

The researchers found that the tools used to identify demand need attention, and the data used for planning for it are sometimes unreliable. Coupled with this, there is a lag between the identification of skills and provision, which is exacerbated by how funding and qualifications systems work. This in turn creates a disconnect between the time horizons of demand analysis and supply planning.

In reality, reporting takes place and data are collected, but it is questionable whether there is sufficient analysis of the data to effectively inform policy or interventions. This could result in recycling the same interventions if the data are not a true reflection of reality. 

Effectively, the annual cycles of skills anticipation do not consider capacities that need to be in place for an evolving developmental state operating in increasingly uncertain and unpredictable contexts. 

The skills gaps and occupational categories are based on what is already known about a capable developmental state, not on what is not working or might be needed. Given the lag in the skills pipeline, some skills and occupations might be obsolete at the time of recruitment. 

Multiplication of planning

The second area of concern in relation to demand is that skills planning occurs in a number of systems through a variety of stakeholders. The lack of coordination creates a situation where departments respond to a number of different calls for similar data. For the REAL research team, the biggest problem is that planning takes place at different levels, coupled with the plethora of legislation which frames skills supply and demand processes in the public service sector. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Why a capable developmental state and an efficient public service still seem like a remote dream

The multiplication of planning seems to lead to a situation in which the systems that are intended to ensure accountability end up being adversarial to service delivery, forcing public servants to focus more on correct reporting methods rather than service delivery. 

On the supply side, the researchers highlight that the proliferation of training programmes and providers is also of concern. Problems in the sector are often rooted exclusively in issues of supply, and this is a key factor driving the proliferation of training. Most providers offer standard programmes with indirect links to career paths and little effective focus on the formation of the norms and values that create a common ethos and sense of purpose. 

Given the levels of corruption, ethics is a gap, but it is not routinely identified as such in skills audits.

Curriculum quality varies, as do methodologies, assessment strategies and materials. Training is often of doubtful relevance (owing to a lack of data on how the delivery systems work and what skills are required to shift established patterns), with limited impact on performance. Programmes are designed out of context, creating challenges in integrating learning back to the workplace. 

Within an analysis that the supply of programmes is the problem, the focus will be on adding more learning programmes, trying to improve existing programmes and curriculums, building more learning institutions and perpetuating the proliferation, which further complicates the public service sector skills matrix. 

Quality, not quantity

Rather than finding ways to evaluate the effectiveness of existing programmes, the proliferation of training exacerbates the fetish of skills supply. Improving the public service becomes a perpetual effort to pin down a moving target. 

In such a paradigm, education and training are seen as a silver bullet that will eradicate the challenges faced by the sector. While these are important for any structure, they cannot operate in isolation from the structural problems. 

What needs to change in the way provision planning takes place? 

First, the sector should explore how it can simplify and narrow down the processes and systems for skills planning, and ensure that those who are directly involved at a departmental level form part of such processes. Third, current skills are wish lists that have little bearing on what is happening on the ground. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Bad management in the public sector – a legacy of State Capture

There are a number of so-called soft skills that should be prioritised that are not identified as gaps. For example, given the levels of corruption, ethics is a gap, but it is not routinely identified as such in skills audits. Nor is problem solving, change management, dealing with people, understanding inequality, or social justice. 

The PSETA is in a unique position to be a power broker to bring together the key stakeholders in the broader skills ecosystem to facilitate a real conversation. Such a conversation will need to focus on ensuring greater coordination, working across silos, rethinking the critical skills that will enable the public service sector to deliver and, importantly, where the role of skills in building a capable and ethical state should be located. DM/MC

Professor Anne McLennan a visiting associate professor at the Wits School of Governance. Themba Tshabalala is a researcher at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.