Maverick Citizen


Call for civil society to champion ‘game-changing’ public administration reforms

Call for civil society to champion ‘game-changing’ public administration reforms
The New South Institute has called on South African civil society organisations to take an active role in supporting public administration reforms. (Photo: iStock)

With crucial legislation aimed at reforming public administration in the works, the New South Institute – a public policy think tank – has urged civil society organisations to join the push for major systemic change in the South African governance.

The New South Institute (NSI) has called on South African civil society organisations to take an active role in engaging and supporting public service reforms it believes could transform the quality of governance.

About 35 people attended a virtual gathering – An Agenda for Reform – on Thursday, including representatives of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse and academic institutions. NSI co-founder and director Ivor Chipkin told attendees he and some of his colleagues had been looking into public service reform for more than a decade, and the country was now on the “cusp of something major”.

“We’re in a situation where there are a whole lot of quite important reforms which are now formally on the agenda and many of them have been either in the parliamentary process or they have been formally approved by the South African Cabinet,” he said.

“I think there’s an opportunity to take the potential and make it real, and I think civil society and other advocacy organisations have a very, very important role.”

The gathering comes just over a month after the NSI published a policy brief, An Agenda for Reform, analysing the “systemic crisis” facing South Africa’s public administration, and proposing a way forward.

“The NSI is eager to make this proposal known, confident there are viable ideas that could be adopted by the government, and more importantly, endorsed by civil society. Together, let us bring about the transformation that South Africa so deeply deserves,” said Rafael Leite, a research fellow at NSI.

Separating politics and administration

There was a need to distinguish between the political office and administrative office in South Africa, Chipkin said, as the current “politicisation of our administration” was weakening the ability of government agencies to deliver services and execute large-scale economic projects.

“We’ve argued … that in the context of state capture, it’s precisely this politicisation of administrations that allowed the ruling party to capture and seize control of key state institutions, including state-owned enterprises,” he said.

Two initiatives are under way to address this, the first being the proposed amendment to the Public Service Act of 1994. For the past 30 years, Section 3 of this foundational piece of legislation has given politicians – the president, ministers and MECs – control over recruitment in their departments, according to Chipkin. It also gives politicians the ability to intervene in their department’s operational matters.

“It has hampered the role of director-generals in exercising their functions and created what the National Development Plan called ‘tensions in the political-administrative interface’. In other words, essentially heads of departments couldn’t do their jobs, unless those powers and functions have been delegated to them by the relevant ministers,” Chipkin said.

“More importantly, as the African National Congress itself has become a site of greater internal contestation, especially from 2009, so the internal politics of the ANC has played itself out in many departments, as various networks and groups within the African National Congress have found the departments a site of further places to pursue their various interests.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: ANC cadre deployment: A ‘cancer’ – or freedom of speech in action?

The Public Service Amendment Bill, currently in Parliament, seeks to amend Section 3 of the act, reducing the powers and functions of politicians concerning administrative roles, especially recruitment and operations, he said.

The second area of public service reform involves the National Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service – endorsed by the Cabinet in 2022 – and the Public Administration Management Amendment Bill, currently in Parliament.

“The professionalising framework gives a much greater role to the National School of Government in several respects, a couple of really important ones. One is in setting a pre-entry test for public servants. So, not anybody can join the public service now, according to the proposals that are on the table,” said Chipkin.

“At the same time, the National School of Government sees a process of tightening the requirements for skills and qualifications within the departments, especially around senior management … and promotion processes. At the same time, there are all sorts of efforts to improve measurements of ethical integrity amongst public servants.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Weak candidates make the cut in public service due to ‘exceptionally’ low requirements – report

Chipkin described the two approaches to reforming the public service – amending the Public Service Act and improving the quality of people entering the public service and rising through departments – as “profound”, with the potential to fundamentally reconfigure the character of the South African government.

“It’s unambiguous that the crisis of government has now become an electoral issue. The ANC’s weakening electoral performance undoubtedly relates to its poor performance in government … I think there’s a great opening, especially within the ruling party but within opposition parties as well, to question public policy, to engage with how we redesign our institutions,” he said.

Role of civil society

There was “no real political champion” for public administration reform, Chipkin said. Proposals were largely led by people within the Department of Public Service and Administration and the Public Service Commission.

“In the current situation where there doesn’t seem to be a national political champion, I think civil society can help build momentum and support for the reforms that are currently on the agenda,” Chipkin said.

“I think if we get these reforms over the line – if we get the Public Administration Management Amendment Bill passed, if we get the current amendment proposals to the Public Service Act and we get various regulations passed … it’s a game-changer for South Africa.” DM


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