Any attempt to reform South Africa’s troubled public service needs to weed out corruption and ensure employees are hired on merit and not political connections. This would require political support from the highest level.

These are some of the insights gained at a Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) roundtable held in September 2009.

CDE brought together a collection of local and international experts to engage in frank and open discussion on how the public service can work in smarter, faster and more accountable ways to meet the country’s growth and development needs.

While the participants highlighted the challenges, they also shared success stories and positive models from other countries, particular departments and other state entities in South Africa to point the way to improvement.

One key aspect of a functioning public service is that efficient delivery has to matter much more than good political connections, seniority, loyalty, or union power.

“Good services cannot be delivered by personnel who are not qualified to perform their duties, or feel that, given their political loyalty, their competence has little or no bearing on their employment,” says Ann Bernstein, CDE Executive Director.

If the challenge of delivering decent services is to be met, appointments must be made in terms of competence to do the job. Merit should be the primary consideration, and it should be possible to be a dedicated and effective public servant irrespective of political allegiance.

Participants recognised that unjust pre-democracy policies needed to be redressed, and accepted that affirmative action was one instrument of this. But they also highlighted that redress and efficiency need to be carefully balanced, and that attention to human resources and business process issues can help get this balance right.

Public servants in South Africa must be motivated to perform, and it needs to be clear that poor performance will have real consequences.

Success stories discussed during the talks demonstrate the importance of regular and specific monitoring, which can help to entrench a culture of performance and accountability. But this will only happen if the results of the many different monitoring exercises are acted upon and don’t just remain reports on bookshelves, so that year after year the same dismal results are reported upon.

Another key insight taken from the roundtable is that corruption must be fought far more effectively. It harms the effectiveness of any institution by distorting hiring, resource allocation and business processes. These networks of corruption, and loyalties to goals other than performance, can be deeply entrenched.

“Combating corruption in the public service requires strong political support, systematic monitoring, and effective processes for dealing with offenders,” says Bernstein. “Corrupt individuals weigh up the chances of being caught and punished. Fighting corruption requires changing the rules of the game to make corrupt practices far riskier than they are now.”

The CDE roundtable demonstrated the importance of closing the loop among goals, monitoring, and accountability. Every success story about public service reform emphasised the vital role of political leaders, at presidential or ministerial level. Conversely, many failed initiatives lacked high-level political support.

In Tanzania, for instance, reforms reduced the time it takes to get a birth certificate from about three years to one to three days. They also reduced the time it takes to register a business and get a licence by about 50%. These public service reforms had high-level backing, with the reformers concentrated in the president’s office. Those leading the changes therefore had regular high-level access and the ability to get them implemented.

“Technical changes are not enough,” warns Bernstein. “Any attempt to reform South Africa’s public service must be initiated and supported by our most senior political leaders and built upon clear, unambiguous principles.

“Successful reform will require the President and the Cabinet to choose the interests of the future over those of the present, and the needs of the many over the preferences of the few.”

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