Opinionista Helen Zille 23 October 2017

From the Inside: Cabinet reshuffles cause departmental drag, hitting provinces hard

Continuity and stability are essential components of good governance but we must not shy away from dealing with the “problem of permanency” where necessary.

The big news story of the week was President Jacob Zuma’s 11th Cabinet reshuffle in eight years (his second in seven months) – and speculation about the motives behind it. Its primary purpose seems to have been the advancement of the nuclear deal with Russia, by moving Zuma ally David Mahlobo from the State Security portfolio to Energy.

According to research commissioned by the South African Institute of Race Relations, since President Zuma took office in 2009 there have been 126 changes to the executive (62 changes to ministerial positions, 63 to deputy ministerial positions, and one change of deputy president).

Cabinet reshuffles hit provinces hard, largely because of their impact on co-operative governance that the Constitution requires on almost every issue. Building a constructive relationship between provincial MECs and national ministers is essential to getting the job done. It sets the context within which officials in different departments work together. And often a project requires co-operation between various departments at different levels simultaneously. For example, the upgrading of provincial harbours requires close co-operation between the relevant municipality, three provincial departments, and three national departments.

Ministerial musical chairs typically also involve changes in senior personnel, employed on five-year contracts (unlike most other government officials who occupy permanent posts). A change of minister, therefore, is often followed by top-level suspensions, golden handshakes, lateral shifts, and other destabilising changes, fraught with tensions that reverberate throughout the department.

The SAIRR research concluded that the average lifespan of a relationship between a minister and director-general is a mere 14 months. It takes about that amount of time for a new incumbent to learn the ropes. In the meantime, departmental officials press the “pause” button on most projects, as they await new instructions. And often, just as the wheels of government begin to turn again, the president announces the next reshuffle.

Continuity and stability are essential components of good governance. While restructuring and reshuffling are sometimes necessary, even desirable, they always have to be carefully weighed against the disruption and “departmental drag” they inevitably cause.

In this context, it seems strange to raise the opposite problem: the “problem of permanency”.

At the heart of government’s human resources challenge lies this paradox: Positions at the very top (politicians in executive office and contracted departmental heads) are too tenuous. Positions at lower levels are too permanent.

In the Western Cape, we have prevented the problem of precariousness by seeking the best available “fit at the top” (provincial ministers and their departmental heads). This helps ensure stability and continuity. But we have not yet been able to adequately address the problems that come with permanency a few rungs down the ladder.

Middle management levels in the bureaucracy are characterised by job security, excellent conditions of service, minimal risk, and high rewards, making a government job the most prized employment in the country. Andre Roux, Professor of Management Economics at Stellenbosch University, has been quoted as saying that civil servants often earn up to 40% more than their peers in the private sector.

And in financial journalist Claire Bisseker’s excellent new book, On the Brink, she shows how employment in the public sector grew rapidly during the boom years (2005 to 2009) and continued a dramatic rise after President Zuma’s election in 2009. Social grants followed the same trajectory.

By misdirecting the revenues of a temporary commodities boom, government created “permanent entitlements”. Today, government has to borrow to meet these obligations. This is the fiscal cliff Bisseker describes.

In the Western Cape we have the country’s lowest ratio of personnel costs (in relation to other government expenditure) at 53.1% of the budget, compared with other provinces. Limpopo spends 69.3% of its budget on personnel, with the average of all provinces at 59.8%. This is unsustainable.

Despite the fact that the Western Cape also has a particularly positive ratio of excellent and good public servants, the fact remains: since taking office in 2009, not a single official below top management has been dismissed for poor performance. Dealing with this challenge (without paying people obscene amounts of money to leave) is something that governments, including the Western Cape government, are particularly bad at.

This is the reason I established, in March 2016, the first specialised unit to manage the problem of “poor performance” in government. The unit guides managers through the labour-law minefield for managing poor performance – a process which differs from misconduct and other forms of incapacity.

When one reads the law and accompanying regulations, it is clear why managers are so reluctant to tackle this challenge. It involves a cyclical process of continuous hands-on engagement, explaining, evaluating, training, guiding and counselling according to strict regulatory guidelines.

The law seems unfailingly accommodating of the under-performer, who often makes full use of the available levers by filing counter-grievances and complaints against the manager. Most managers would rather live with poor performance than go through a process so demanding of time and energy – while poisoning the working environment.

The special unit to manage poor performance was warmly welcomed by most managers, many of whom quickly sought its assistance. Although it only comprises two people, the unit is beginning to change the culture of government in the Western Cape. The message is getting through: poor performance will not be overlooked.

So far, 13 officials have chosen to resign, knowing they would not meet the required performance standard, or had their employment terminated, due to misconduct, before the poor-performance process had run the full course. Four other cases are currently being finalised.

The unit also trains managers to ensure that they use the 12-month probationary period (at the start of every official’s employment) for its intended purpose – proper probation. Managers have to clarify expectations to new staff, identify under-performance early on, and undertake the necessary steps to fix it, if possible – failing which the employee does not become permanent.

Finally, the unit helps managers muster the courage needed to give the appropriate rating that an honest performance assessment requires. This in itself is pretty revolutionary in government. But it is absolutely essential.

Today, almost all serious commentators understand that a capable state is indispensable to a country’s progress. We will never achieve that elusive goal unless we get the best possible fit between people and the positions they hold, despite the enormous constraints of our context.

This requires tackling the culture of “permanent entitlement” head-on. For all the difficulty of doing so, it is the foundation of improved performance. DM

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