Thought Leadership

BLSA CEO Newsletter 17 July 2023

16/07/2023 | By Busiswe Mavuso

President Cyril Ramaphosa last week publicly vowed to hold ministers and deputy ministers to account if they had not addressed, met and executed the priority areas that had been set for them. He said he’d be meeting them over the next six months and would not “accept any excuses or explanations”.

Such a clean-up at the top levels of government goes hand in hand with the work to professionalise the entire public service – an ambitious but very worthwhile project given the abysmal state of service delivery in large parts of the country. In December the Department of Public Service and Administration released the “National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service”, which promotes a culture of merit-based recruitment and aims to improve public service delivery.

Raising the calibre of leadership at the top is the right starting point to develop an efficient and professional public service; that will enable the professionalisation to cascade down to all levels. If there is no accountability at the top levels of leadership, particularly for not fulfilling mandates, it will be impossible to raise the standards in the tiers of leadership that fall under them.

It would be relatively quick and simple to replace non-performing Cabinet ministers and other senior leaders whereas professionalising the entire public service is a longer-term goal, particularly given the widespread dysfunctionality in many municipalities, for example.

The importance of doing so, however, cannot be overstated as the suboptimal levels of service cause tremendous damage to the economy. Furthermore, all the important reforms government and business are working on jointly in terms of the recent compact between government and CEOs of major SA companies to address the severe challenges of energy, crime and logistics will prove ineffective if there aren’t competent people and efficient departments along the entire value chain to implement the required changes and manage their future operations. The solutions for all those elements require contributions from local, provincial and national government departments.

While business is fully behind the reforms and working hard with government to get them successfully implemented, we can’t lose sight of the longer-term goal of professionalising the public service to develop it into one that is fit for purpose.

But it’s not just the reforms that require competency – I’ve written recently about how flawed the National Health Insurance policy is but even if it was fit for purpose, it would still end in failure if standards throughout the state health system are not improved. In fact, one of the main reasons for the dismal state of public health services is lack of accountability for suboptimal performance as well as unethical public procurement practices. This is similar for our state education system and municipal service delivery failures, among others.But it’s not just the reforms that require competency – I’ve written recently about how flawed the National Health Insurance policy is but even if it was fit for purpose, it would still end in failure if standards throughout the state health system are not improved. In fact, one of the main reasons for the dismal state of public health services is lack of accountability for suboptimal performance as well as unethical public procurement practices. This is similar for our state education system and municipal service delivery failures, among others.

The key is accountability and we encourage performance-based assessments. If leaders at the top are held accountable for not performing the functions and duties they’re supposed to, the galvanising effect at lower levels will be remarkable.

Over the years government has made numerous attempts to address the problem. It has launched white papers on Transformation of the Public Service, Local Government, Transforming Public Service Delivery, the National Development Plan, municipal staff regulations and guidelines and the District Development Model, all of which aim to address inefficiencies and dysfunctionality in the public service. None have been seen through.

Business is doing all it can to ensure this latest iteration to professionalise the public service is successfully implemented. We are working with government in numerous areas to improve efficiencies in the public service and in some cases are also pushing for improvements to the plans that are already being implemented.

One important area is the rollout of the minimum competencies framework that is under way. This introduces minimum competencies for municipal officials and BLSA is pushing to extend that to all organs of state and to ensure that chief financial officer functions are included.

Another is ongoing skills training, particularly to keep pace with evolving needs, such as the need for expertise within municipalities to implement a complex wheeling framework for private sector energy generation.

Other areas of focus include alignment of accounting, procurement and governance systems to international best practice and private sector regulations and strong performance management procedures – not only with leaders being held accountable for failure but also where good performance is rewarded, possibly through bonuses. All these measures align with the professionalisation framework’s goals of curbing systemic corruption in the public sector across all spheres of government and where the recruitment of public servants is based on competence and ethical disposition, as opposed to unethical personal and political interests.

Service delivery is largely abysmal throughout the country, mainly because people appointed to their positions are not suitably qualified – the ANC’s notorious cadre deployment programme has contributed significantly to the state the country is in today. The way to develop an efficient and professional civil service is to appoint people with integrity who are suitably qualified for their roles.

This is not a “nice to have” – it’s a constitutional prerequisite that public administration must maintain a high level of professionalism.

BLSA is a business organisation that believes in South Africa’s future and shares the values set out in the Constitution. BLSA is committed to playing its part in creating a South Africa of increasing prosperity for all by harnessing the resources and capabilities of business in partnership with government and civil society to deliver economic growth, transformation and inclusion.