Monday, 4 April 2011

The Civil Service Question

For some years now I have been trying to get articles published in South African newspapers on what I like to call `the civil service question'. In stark contrast with other issues I have written about, I have had no success whatsoever. So here is an attempt at raising the issue through another medium. (The reasons for the media's lack of interest in this issue are interesting in themselves, but those will need to be the subject of another piece).

The civil service question

What is the civil service question? To the extent it can be summarised, it is the question: What kind of civil service do we want in South Africa? 

There are, of course, many components to this. For a start, do we want a politicised civil service like the United States, where new political heads bring with them new civil servants? Or a less politicised one like the United Kingdom where top civil servants are called 'permanent secretaries' for a reason? Or some other point on the spectrum of possibilities (I mention the UK and US only because I have more knowledge of those countries than others)?

Another issue is the extent to which the civil service should prioritise achieving demographic representation relative to other objectives, like the recruitment of the most skilled candidates. Some claim that there is no such tradeoff, but - as I will discuss below - this is a ridiculous argument.

Within the civil service, what are considered the more important categories of employees? Managers in national departments, groups with specific skills like teachers and nurses, local municipal managers or manual labourers? Every category has a role to play, but where are vacancies tolerable and where are they dire? If the supply (or quality thereof) of a particular group is inadequate, are we prepared to invest in increased training and higher wages?

Answers to these sorts of questions determine the structure of the civil service in many respects. That includes recruitment processes, employment contracts, training initiatives and the attitude of civil servants to their jobs. All this, in turn, has a massive impact on the quality of the civil service and the actual services it delivers to the South Africans that provide the democratic mandate and financial support for this social institution.

The problems with the existing civil service are well-known: corruption, incompetence, lack of skills, poor work ethic and an arrogance that precludes empathy. This is not the case in all of government, but the departments where these problems are not widely prevalent are usually well-known exceptions. I would suggest that this state of affairs reflects the greatest failure of the post-1994 South Africa and the successive ANC governments which have led us over the last 17 years. Besides Thabo Mbeki's Batho Pele initiative, which anyway aimed to address only the symptoms rather than the causes, I would suggest that there has been little or no principled leadership when it comes to addressing the civil service question. 

Some Examples

It is easy to get embroiled in very abstract analysis of these issues, but I find it useful to consider real-world examples. Having worked in government in the past decade, I experienced and observed many of the consequences of a civil service lacking in leadership, principles and direction. Here are illustrations of just two of the most pressing, and often very basic, problems.

Who runs the show?

The department I arrived in had experienced a procession of director generals( DGs), at a rate of almost one per year. When I arrived the post was vacant, and within a year a new individual had been appointed and then encouraged to leave. The same story can be told, to varying degrees of absurdity, across most national government departments and a decent number of provincial and local departments as well. Why does this happen?

The main reason, in most cases, is that ministers believe that they are the ones who run the department. At the same time, ministers (when they arrive, and even sometimes when they leave) usually have little, if any, knowledge or expertise in the area in which their department works. Furthermore, the Presidency - which is responsible for managing relationships between ministers and their civil service heads - has failed to clarify the boundaries of the ministers' roles and often fails to rein-in their egos. Many extremely competent individuals have been fired, or had their contracts `expire', because a minister's ego was bruised by a civil servant who was reluctant to take orders from someone largely ignorant of the issues. With very few exceptions, the civil servant is the one that has to go. So widespread is this problem that - in a country with major skills shortages - there remain increasingly few prospective, properly qualified, individuals who can act as DG and have not already been dismissed from the post. The result is that many DGs are now no longer subject experts, but rather people with some management track record who are either politically `aligned' or simply very compliant in the face of ministerial diktat.

Transformation or competence?

One of the major challenges in the early 1990s was to transform the civil service from one that was the primary weapon of the apartheid state, to one which would embody and pursue the objectives of a newly democratic country under the leadership of an ANC government. Notice that this transformation is not, at its base, about race. It is about attitude. It was also to some extent about skills, since many apartheid bureaucrats were also incompetent - the civil service being used as a means of keeping white people employed, regardless of whether they were necessary or not. 

Unfortunately, the transformation imperative has been largely interpreted along racial lines. The department I worked for had at one point in time 90-95% of its full-time staff classified as `black Africans'. All other racial groups were underrepresented. Now you might argue that, statistically, some departments will end-up with fluctuations over or under the national demographics. The problem with that argument is that it assumes a level-playing field when it comes to skills, expertise and experience. Some have disputed that there is any tradeoff between skills and racial representation. Significantly, Jimmy Manyi made this argument - as BMF President and DG of Labour - in relation to firms' claims that they were having difficulty transforming their work force because of a lack of skills. To me it is obvious that anyone who makes this argument wants to have their cake and eat it. They want to argue that apartheid was a bad thing because it oppressed and disadvantaged black people, but yet black people are just as skilled and well-educated as their white counterparts. We all agree on the first part, but the second part is just absurd. Nothing - not anecdotal evidence, or the data provided by the government-run StatsSA - supports that view. This doesn't mean there aren't some highly skilled, brilliantly talented, black South Africans; there are, but not enough to fill the positions we would want to be filled by black people in order to have proper representation.

Why would anyone make this claim then? Because, as has recently been noted by some others, it serves certain interests. In particular, it serves a narrow, black nationalist agenda by which certain groups of individuals hope to advance themselves to the most well-paid positions on the basis of their skin colour rather than qualifications, abilities or even motivations. (Jacob Dlamini has scathingly denoted these people 'professional blacks'). You thought the Jimmy Manyi - Trevor Manuel clash was an important event relating to race issues, but actually I would suggest it is more important in terms of its implications for, and insinuations about, the civil service. This has begun to draw some attention - see this piece and the quotes in it from a former senior civil servant.

The consequences of prioritising racial transformation over competence are simple. Those who benefit from civil service appointments based on race will win, those who rely on the scale and quality of service delivery will lose. Some black people will become (relatively) well-off quite quickly, while most will have to wait much longer for the quality of their lives to improve than they would have had to otherwise. 

Choices Made     

Despite the fact that these issues are not really being discussed, everyday someone, somewhere is making decisions that effectively reveal which direction we are choosing for our civil service. There remain significant vacancy levels and devastating low skills in core groups like teachers, nurses and technical professions like engineering. Corruption seems never-ending, as illustrated by the mountains of work that keeps piling-up for institutions like the Special Investigations Unit. (Of course, we should recognise that the SIU being called-in by departments is a silver lining to this particular cloud). Dozens of DGs have been fired because of 'relationship breakdowns' with ministers, who have often then been moved to other portfolios - rubbing salt further in the wounds. On the other hand, a number of DGs have continued serving in senior positions despite very serious allegations of misconduct - Manyi himself is an example, but there are others. Many departments have succeeded in surpassing demographic representation of black people (broadly or narrowly defined) but are failing massively on service delivery. 

Perhaps the most obvious symptom of the malaise in the civil service, and the lack of principled, political leadership in this regard, is the absence of a structured recruitment and career development programme whereby government seeks to get the best possible people to be civil servants. This is not a coincidence; such a programme would threaten some very powerful interest groups. Nevertheless, the complete failure to do this at entry level means that departments often have to bring-in consultants to do any genuinely skilled work. Ironically, in the department where I worked, 90%+ of my colleagues were black Africans but 90% of the consultants were white and 35-45% of the wage bill went to consultants. The rest of the maths is simple. So in fact, even the racial transformation is superficial. Government itself is guilty of 'fronting' for precisely the same reasons as some businesses; white people are disproportionately skilled because of apartheid and it is much easier to use them than fix the education system and put in place proper scholarship and training programmes.

The most aggravating thing about all of this, is the attention focused on policies and targets, while hardly anyone is asking whether maybe we should focus more on improving the system, and the people in it, that is supposed to implement these policies and achieve those targets. The media is as culpable as the politicians. The Mail and Guardian scorecard, as one example, is full of crude and superficial assessments based often on minister's personal efforts - encouraging the idea that ministers are the ones who are really responsible for results. 

Frustrated by government failures on various fronts, many find the idea of being able to snipe at ministers quite appealing, but it is wrongheaded. Ministers are political figureheads for departments and in that sense must of course take some blame when things go wrong. But if we are interested in substance rather than form we should focus our attention elsewhere. Until we confront the civil service question, South Africa will never come close to achieving its social and economic potential.

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