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Fri Nov 28 09:02:08 CAT 2014

Liberate the public service to do its job. That's Step One

Mondli Makhanya | 13 November, 2011 00:27
Mondli Makhanya
Image by: Sunday Times

But this baseline proposal for raising SA's game will rattle Luthuli House

PARENTS and behavioural psychologists talk about how 17 is probably the most problematic age in the life of a growing child.

It is a rebellious age, that point when the teenager believes he or she knows it all and will listen to the word of no other.

At 17 years of age, our democracy is certainly like that of a teenager. We are self-aware, troublesome and have a know-it-all attitude.

It is therefore appropriate that it is at this point that South Africa is taking stock of what it has done right and wrong and what it needs to do to be a rounded adult by the time mid-life crisis comes round.

The country's National Development Plan, which was launched on Friday, is precisely this.

It follows the release earlier this year of the diagnostic report, which provided a brutally honest assessment of the state of the country.

The plan, drawn up by 26 commissioners from various disciplines, talks about the kind of country South Africa should be in 2030 and outlines the steps we need to take to get to that point. It proposes South Africa should "seek to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality" and enable "citizens to grasp the ever-broadening opportunities" available to them.

Now, in a country replete with studies, reports and plans that gather dust in musty storerooms, we can all be forgiven for being cynical. "Oh, yet another plan, why don't they just get on with it," is the sceptical chorus.

It is this rolling-of-eyes response that commission chairman Trevor Manuel and his cabinet colleagues need to be aware of. If the government acts in a way that justifies this cynicism, it will be a terrible blow to the prospects of this pubescent.

That is why one of the most important chapters in the plan is "Building a Capable State", which outlines proposals on how to make the government effective.

The chapter acknowledges the weaknesses that hamper the government's ability to deliver on its mandate. These result from, inter alia, low skills and poor professionalism, the lack of attractiveness of the public service as career choice, the absence of clarity between political and administrative functions, confusion over the allocation of powers of the three tiers of government and instability in the governance of parastatals.

Very critical here is the blurring of the line between party and state, something South Africans blame for much of the mess in large parts of the government.

The plan acknowledges that there is always a danger in societies that when "the public service is insufficiently insulated [from political control], standards can be undermined as public servants are recruited on the basis of political connections rather than skills and expertise". It also talks about "the lack of clarity of division of political and administrative wings of government".

One answer to this, the commissioners suggest, is a clear distinction between administrative and political administrative lines of accountability through strengthening the Public Service Commission and granting it greater independence. A stronger and freer PSC would be a "robust champion of a meritocratic public service" where skills and talent would be valued above "status or connections".

"Skills, motivation and professional ethic should be recognised and valued at all levels of the public service and local government," the commissioners say.

An obvious suggestion, you might say, but not one that defines our public service.

They also propose the creation of a single head of the public service to whom directors-general would report on administrative matters.

The increasing powers of the PSC and the creation of a super-DG are likely to rattle many in the governing party, who view the public service as an appendage of Luthuli House.

But many of these proposals will fall flat if accountability mechanisms, such as elected legislatures, do not do their job.

The report notes that the delivery protests that have rocked the country in recent years "stem partly from citizens' frustrations that the state is not responsive". A solution to this is for parliamentarians and provincial legislators to "show a genuine will to hold the executive to account" and to "embrace their leadership role".

There are many more suggestions in the plan on how to make the state an effective organ . Most of them, as the above examples demonstrate, revolve around professionalising the public service, doing as much as possible to depoliticise it and ensuring effective oversight.

The other proposals in the report, as critical and urgent as they are, will come to nought if we do not get the state of our state right.

This calls for courage on the part of our governors.

But they must know they do not have a choice. The alternative sends shivers down the spine.

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