South Africa’s public sector has steadily become more inefficient – as costs have increased, but productivity has declined – due to the destruction of leadership roles through political interference in public administration.
Chair of Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies at Wits University Professor Alex van den Heever told the SABC that the country lacks a professional public service.
Professionalisation implies that there are specific qualifications that a person has to attain to work in the public sector and to be promoted to senior positions.
A significant part of a professional public service is the employment and promotion of individuals with experience within the organisation or in the field.
However, this link has been “largely broken in the way in which the public service has been operating through patronage and political interference in the appointment process”, Van den Heever said.
This problem is particularly prevalent among senior management as political appointees have been parachuted into these positions without prior experience in the organisation or field.
“That destruction of leadership roles has had a severe impact on performance,” said Van den Heever.
“Multiple layers of management have been inserted not because they have a function to perform but because they were a way of promoting people into senior positions.”
These layers of management add no value to the organisation and have resulted in the cost of public administration increasing while the productivity of the service declines.
In many cases, these political appointees create a toxic operating environment, said Van den Heever. Many skilled public servants then leave the organisation, exacerbating the problem.
“We need to reorganise large parts of the public service to make it functional,” said Van den Heever. One starting point is to sever the employment relationship between politicians in the executive and senior public service members.
The public service should ideally be apolitical and merely implement the government’s policy rather than tow the government’s ideological line.
Van den Heever said the country has many skilled emerging professionals in the public service, but they cannot do much in volatile organisations that lack leadership.
Cadre deployment a weapon in untrained hands
Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said that if cadre deployment were imposed on the National Treasury, it would “kill” the institution.
The minister said he received a phone call from the IMF’s senior official in the country upon his appointment.
Godongwana admitted that the inability to implement policy is a major weakness of the government, caused by the lack of skills in national and local governments.
“That, in my view, is a skills issue,” said Godongwana.
The lack of skills in the government has been created, in part, by the government itself through its cadre deployment policy.
“You can’t put a weapon in the hands of somebody who is not well-trained. What has happened with cadre deployment has been to place a weapon in the hands of somebody who is not well-trained,” Godongwana said.
This is self-defeating in some cases. “When this untrained person has got the weapon, he can even shoot you – the person who gave him the weapon. That has been the fundamental weakness of cadre deployment.”
The Finance Minister is specifically concerned about the potential impact of cadre deployment on the National Treasury.
Godongwana explained that all treasuries around the world have two things in common – technical competency and fiscal conservatism.
“Those that lack these characteristics tend to go to the IMF regularly and ask for bailouts.”
“So, if you come to the Treasury with cadre deployment, you would kill the institution. Stone dead,” Godongwana said.
The National Treasury needs high levels of competency and professionalism while being free to diverge from the ruling party’s ideology.
Godongwana said the role of the Finance Minister is to mediate this tension between the ruling party and the Treasury.