Towards a more professional and productive public service


One of the main objectives of the next administration, the sixth of the democratic era, is the reduction of the government’s wage bill.
At first take this seems to be straightforward, at least in intent. The government should spend less money on itself, and more on the services it provides.
There are not very many people who would disagree that teachers, nurses and police officers should be paid higher salaries, if we want to attract and keep them in their jobs – with fewer incentives for rent-seeking.
Those who steal or embezzle funds should be fully investigated, arrested if they are found to be guilty, and prosecuted. They should not be redeployed elsewhere in the public service.
In most places of employment, non-performance and the myriad micro-unethical behaviours are addressed, corrected by instilling a more professional work ethic and greater productivity.
Surely it is not too much to ask that people do the work they are employed to do, and to expect professionalism and dedication?
This has nothing to do with socialism or capitalism.
It has everything to do with a dedication to public service, and restoring faith in a state in service of society.
While there are many highly professional, multi-skilled and dedicated people in the public service, there is also a legion of indolence protected by nepotism and patronage – and a lack of consequences.
The problem lies deeper in the state bureaucracy, where there are officials who duplicate work, feign industry (pretending to be busy, or shifting responsibility and accountability), run small businesses on the side and who are, well, inadequately skilled or qualified to do the jobs they hold.
And so, the next administration’s task would entail, among others, reorganising the state by creating fewer cabinet positions, fewer ministers and deputy ministers, merging government departments and streamlining the work of agencies.
This reorganisation would have a wide range of knock-on effects, most of which are intended.
Apart from reducing the wage bill, it should also introduce greater efficiency and efficacy, more professionalism and, ideally, a stronger work ethic.
The latter would be the most difficult to achieve.
How do you tell someone to arrive at work on time – every work day?
How do you tell people to do the actual work they are employed to do?
How do you evaluate performance and output?
Quite often in the public service, any expectations of professionalism, ethics and productivity are filtered through trade unions, which tend to place themselves in opposition to the state as employer, and to society’s overall objectives.
It would be ideal if trade unions dedicated themselves as much to professionalism, productivity, ethics and a national project of public service renewal – even if it means shedding jobs.
Trade unions should be as interested in an effective democracy, work-place excellence and productivity, and economic expansion which, in the interest of unions, should create more jobs, more members and more subscriptions or membership fees.
At times of crisis, such as the crisis of Eskom power-supply, unions may want to rededicate themselves to national productivity and output – as opposed to going on strike.
Unions can play a vital role in any participatory democracy. This role can never be played out on a different stage, and read from a different script.
South Africans are all in the same boat.
You cannot rescue the state, or society, while unions sink.
Put another way, you cannot save unions at the cost of society and the state.
We may also want to be a lot more honest about worker rights, responsibilities and expectations.
The most recent push for insourcing workers comes with enormous costs that are, in many ways, an important objective for proponents of insourcing.
Almost everyone remembers the embarrassing October interview with SARS digital and information technology chief officer Mmamathe Makhekhe-Mokhuane.
During the interview with Sakina Kamwendo on SABC’s Morning Live, Makhekhe-Mokhuane seemed quite unable to answer questions about the revenue service’s IT and efiling infrastructure.
Forget the cringeworthy moments of the interview.
During the interview, Makhekhe-Mokhuane dropped a hint about bringing in contract workers.
Insourced workers often come with expectations of bursaries or scholarships for their children.
These bursaries are necessary and noble, and they are also generally positive, but as the state is reorganised and the wage bill is reduced, the government may face extended cost commitments that go beyond the basic salaries of public servants.
Many family members, especially next-generation professionals, may depend on the bursaries that Makhekhe-Mokhuane referred to.
The process of reducing the state’s wage bill, making government departments smaller and more efficient and effective, more focused with higher levels of professionalism and ethics, is non-negotiable.
It is not the task only of the government.
Unions and professional bodies should all be part of the process.
There should be a single script which ends with a professional public service that has the trust of society.
Unions may want to rededicate themselves to productivity and output – as opposed to going on strike

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