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Johannesburg - The proposal to establish a single public service must be welcomed as one of the best ideas that the Department of Public Service and Administration has spearheaded.
This department is rightfully reclaiming its role as the nexus co-ordinating point of government. In the past, public service was dichotomised to effect control, inequality, preferential relations and the dispersal of political and financial largesse.
The homeland system was a case in point, with various disproportionate forms of false statehood and a delusional sense of power.
In 1994, we bid happy farewell to a vile and anachronistic form of government based on regionalism, tribalism, caste system and race. We affirmed a call that South Africa is a unitary, sovereign state and all the employees who are assigned the role of service to the public should be governed and regulated by the same regime of rules and obligations.
As things stand, some sections of the public service answer to different authorities.
The public service and its various and varied conditions of employment gives an impression of a federal state with differentiated obligations to its constituent parts. The federal constitutional option was laid to rest at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa after it was found to be out of sync with and in sharp contradiction to the principles for which the oppressed people took up arms.
The guiding framework is the people’s constitution with all the attended rites, canons, quests, desires and expectations.
All public servants earn a living from the national fiscus. Public servants are not paid from some profits or share dividends, but are paid from a pool of nation contributions sometimes called tax.
However, a system has been allowed and condoned where some sections of the public service are seen to be above the control and jurisdiction of the state or government.
For examples, the judiciary, especially its upper echelons, sees itself as far above the sway and orbit of the public service. Its role is perceived to be a far nobler and esoteric enterprise than, for example, the calling of a teacher, nurse or clerk in a government department.
Because judges can turn down the decisions of the cabinet, they have been made to believe that they are not your archetypal members of the public and would, given a chance, be the fourth tier of the public sector.
The public service is divided into three tiers of national, provincial and local government. Conditions of employment, norms and standards, salary scale and career pathing are different.
Though they serve the same government and the same public, they are rewarded and acknowledged differently.
Correspondingly, they are made to feel worth less or worth more, depending on where they are in the value chain of the state.
These disparities promote competition rather than collaboration across the public service. Poaching from the supposedly same staff pool hinders the stability of the public service and adversely affects the delivery of its mandate to the public. The current state of affairs militates against the ANC’s 2002 and the 2007 resolutions, which made a call for a single public service.
The benefits of a single public service are immense. Common norms and standards will apply across the entire system and greater efficiency and effectiveness will be attained. Retention of skilled staff will be improved and a crop of middle and senior managers will be created from which to extract future senior public service leadership such as directors-general and deputy directors-general.
The ethos of public service will be channelled from the same authority, and responsibility for failures and remedial actions will be addressed by the same authority. Staff mobility will be enhanced throughout the system. For example, a municipal worker can easily transfer to provincial and national department, something that is impossible at the moment because of the different systems.
A single public service will allow for better planning of the ability of the government to deliver on the promises it makes to the nation. Better planning of the application and assignment of human resource staff across the entire public service will be attained. The effectiveness of government IT systems will be further enhanced and benefits will accrue throughout the system as a result.
At the moment there are different pension schemes, medical aid schemes, bargaining processes and IT and human resource systems, especially between local government and national government. Salary disparities are huge and result in tension and conflictual brain drain within a system that is supposed to serve the same people and derives its mandate from the same source – government.
A municipal employee can be charged and resign, only to be appointed at a national or provincial government department, because the various systems are not attuned to each other.
The oft-cited capacity constraints at local municipal levels militate against affording its employees much-needed motivation to deliver services. Training opportunities that are accessible through the Public Administration Leadership and Management Academy are often missed by municipal employees.
The overriding concern of the creation of the single public service must be to occasion a new form of government that is responsive to the needs of its citizens.
At the centre of this exercise must be the people and the satisfaction of their right to effective, timeous and efficient public service.
The government is not and should not be seen as a self-serving entity that exists for its own sake. Its creation is premised on the satisfaction of the demands and desires of its citizens, who, owing to the evolution of democracy since ancient Greece, have assigned governing responsibilities to elected officials through a vote or plebiscite.
It is this vote that must then equalise, in the eyes of the government, the rural poor and the urban rich. Services must be delivered to the same people in the same way without regard for their station in life and financial circumstances.
The tool to effect such a common treatment of the commoner and the opulent is the public service administration. It is enjoined by the constitution to ensure that both the above cited satisfy their right to life.
This public service is the first contact between the citizens and the government or state and must make a good impression about a government willing and conscious of its role to deliver proper services to the people.
The public service must cease to be the employer of last resort. It must cease to attract those who could not be accommodated elsewhere.
* Thami Ka Plaatjie is a political and social commentator based in Joburg.