Opinionista Hannah Schultz 7 June 2018

How should we address governance challenges in the public sector?

Over the past few weeks, the need to tackle the governance challenge in South Africa has become increasingly obvious. From patients sent home to die from hospitals in North West or the release of the Auditor-General’s report on the state of municipal governance, it has become clear that urgent intervention is required.

A functioning public sector will enable us to reap the benefits of our Constitution and progressive social policies. A non-functional public sector harms the vulnerable. In my previous piece I outlined challenges which prevent effective delivery of services. I discussed the unevenness in service delivery and the precariousness of the systems on which delivery is built.

There are serious issues with participatory democracy in the state and the inability of ordinary actors to hold the state to account. A culture of impunity has led to State Capture projects and a lack of accountability to broader society within departments. Local level policy is often not driven by evidence and inappropriate metrics of performance are often used. The result of this is that many competent public servants struggle to deliver basic services.

The diagnosis that something is seriously wrong with the public sector has been confirmed by Trevor Manuel who described public sector “horror stories”. Manuel highlighted the fact that the task of improving the public service is more difficult than it was in 1994, as South Africans are less forgiving of public sector mis-steps.

Through his actions in his first 100 days in office, President Cyril Ramaphosa has provided strong interventions that prove he is serious about delivering improved services for South Africa. This is important because the first step to enacting change is leadership commitment to that change. In order for service delivery to be prioritised above political interests, true commitment to the Constitution and the National Development Plan is required.

While President Ramaphosa’s commitment to public sector reform is clear, true change requires leaders in all areas of government to be as committed. Actors such as municipal managers, District Health heads and accounting officers need to be dedicated to the ideals of the Constitution, the development of the country and the principles of Batho Pele.

The current challenge of service delivery in the public sector is complex, and the solutions to the challenge will be multifaceted. Prosecution and a drive to root out corruption are one component of the solution. At a PARI Round-table on the “State After Capture”, Mark Heywood argued that every public servant should have a clear understanding of their mandate under the Constitution. This would go a long way towards helping civil servants understand their mandate and the prioritisation of their mandate above other concerns. This leaves us with the challenge of how to ensure the public sector is capable of fulfilling its mandate.

Faced with such a challenge, it is tempting to dream of whole-scale organisational change. Minister of Public Service, Ayanda Dlodlo, has already highlighted her intention to conduct a whole-scale review of the public sector. Typically, such reviews are concluded with recommendations for massive organisational change, the need for which can be seen in many areas of the public service.

While a whole-scale review of the public service is required, a “big bang” approach to organisational change is not advisable. In the first place, organisational design efforts are seldom successful in the private sector. If “big bang” attempts are often unsuccessful in the private sector, the public sector should be wary of them. This is not because of any inherent inefficiency in the public sector, but rather the public sector has broader organisational aims and more complex cost-benefit trade-offs (i.e. efficiency is not the only goal of public organisations).

Dlodlo has been quoted as saying that retrenchments are not the only option for making the state sector more efficient, and that there are other options which could save money and improve delivery, such as moving Parliament to Pretoria to save travel costs and optimise time use.

It is clear that there are major interventions which could improve delivery in the public sector, the judicious use of centralised procurement being one of them. One of the major challenges with embarking on this kind of exercise is that important data is either missing or unreliable.

What is the solution then? How should we make decisions about creating a public sector which delivers? If a state redesign process will take years, how should we tackle the emergencies that are happening right now?

One solution is turning the areas where intervention is urgently required into opportunities to generate data to inform larger organisational change. Typically, those would be the areas of greatest liability or greatest opportunity for improvement. Examples of areas requiring intervention abound, but good examples include primary healthcare in North West, medicine supply management in North West or post-operation care in Gauteng.

In classic Business Improvement methodologies, breaking the problem down into a manageable process and using results as data is seen as a sustainable and cost-effective way to drive change. Although there are differing views on some of the fundamental methodologies, this is the thinking behind classic processes such as SCRUM or Six Sigma. Moving forward by using pilots as data-gathering exercises helps reduce the risks involved in change. Although Business Improvement as a concept may seem far removed from the South African public sector, gathering data from pilots could help us manage the lack of comprehensive data.

The Wellness for Effective Leadership programme (WEL) proves that intervention at the team level can have enormous impact. WEL consists of four sessions held six weeks apart with a team of 14 people at a district health level. One of the interesting things that the team found is that recognising the complex trauma that may be present in the team (both from lived personal history and the history of working in the team) helps to improve work outcomes. Thereafter the team works to regain a sense of agency in the workplace by enacting manageable improvements. Marked improvement in team results have been observed.

The WEL intervention demonstrates the importance of acknowledging the human at the centre of the process. This is especially critical if decision-makers are asking public servants to acknowledge the humanity of others. If an intervention is designed properly, it can provide immediate impact in a governance emergency and the kind of data required to make large-scale interventions in the public sector.

The challenges faced by the public sector make it tempting to demand a whole-scale organisational change within the sector. While gradual reform is required, I argue that areas of crisis should be used to pilot intervention and change. This will both provide more immediate service delivery and the information to build a true picture of the public sector. In further stages, this data could be used to identify the levers to improve service delivery outside the areas in which pilots have been conducted. DM

Hannah Schultz is currently working for the public sector on transport infrastructure projects.

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