President Ramaphosa committed to excellence in planning and execution in government and his signing of performance agreements with the Executive is welcomed, says the writer. File picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)
President Ramaphosa committed to excellence in planning and execution in government and his signing of performance agreements with the Executive is welcomed, says the writer. File picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Public servants will be key to delivering Ramaphosa's SONA promises

By Reneva Fourie Time of article published Feb 27, 2020

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Fixing the fundamentals in the economy, and particularly addressing youth unemployment, featured strongly in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday, February 13, 2020. The President emphasised the importance of collaboration, and countless times mentioned how social compacts will assist in ensuring that the commitments in the SONA are achieved. As Minister Ebrahim Patel states, “The central idea in SONA last week is of going together, building broad consensus and developing social compacts – it is how we made our constitution and how we are now rebuilding our economy”.

These powerful sentiments expressed by the President and Minister Patel, correctly highlight the need for the private sector, trade unions and citizens at large, to assist in developing our country to its full potential. However, the core responsibility for realising the commitments made in the SONA resides with public servants. The ambitious programme set by the President will come to nought if our public service is not geared to drive it.

An interventionist state with a developmental orientation should ensure that the allocation of resources occurs in a manner that accrues social and material benefits to society at large. While policy choice and its ideological persuasion are fundamental to achieving the socio-economic objectives of the state, its theoretical and programmatic intent loses significance if the application of state resources fails to achieve the required impact. 

President Ramaphosa committed to excellence in planning and execution in government and his signing of performance agreements with the Executive is welcomed. This gesture is in line with existing policy tools that align planning and measurement processes with financial and performance management to ensure that the state is efficient, effective and economic. It is strict compliance with these tools, and consequence management in the event of a default, that needs to be tightened. 

The enactment of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) in 1999, combined with the National Treasury Regulations issued in 2002, laid the foundation for longer-term financial planning and control, including outcomes-based budgeting. The Department of Public Service and Administration also systematically introduced performance management systems to facilitate the setting of standards against which the outputs of public officials can be measured to increase accountability. These two tools are supported by the national planning and monitoring and evaluation processes of the Presidency. These policy and institutional instruments lay a strong foundation for ensuring public sector accountability. Despite this, areas for improvement remain.

One area that requires improvement is coordination. Many attempts have been made to improve coordination between the three spheres of government to maintain policy coherence and to ensure streamlining of government action. The cluster system is meant to enhance inter-departmental co-operation at the sphere of the national government and the Minister/MECs (MinMecs) forums are one mechanism to ensure sectoral alignment across spheres. The value of these inter-governmental institutional and regulatory measures increases exponentially once silo-, turf-protecting and competitive mentalities end, and commitments to achieving shared developmental objectives are prioritised and synchronised politically and administratively.

The perspective of performance measurement shapes the sustainability of a capable, developmental state, with constructively-minded personnel. The mechanical linking of inputs, activities and outputs, enables the accounting of quantitative achievements but creates the illusion that resources and energies are being deployed prudently. The current instruments do not allow for the qualitative impact of policy decisions and interventions to be measured.

Systems that measure whether the public sector is efficient, effective and economic must ensure that state policies, programmes and projects have the desired impact. This will enable better directing and appraisal of financial management, the performance of government officials and the relevance of public programmes to the people at large, thereby reducing and even eliminating, wastage, maladministration and corruption. 

The appropriate allocation of public funds is fundamental to ensuring economic development and social security. A well-formulated budget allows for public funds to be spent with the utmost care, to be deployed for the benefit of citizens, and ensures that public expenditure is appropriately accounted for. Likewise, public servants form key instruments of delivery; and success depends on adequate staffing with appropriate capabilities and the right values.  

However, even the best systems and tools cannot instil good values. The rising elitism within the public service is cause for concern. The increased sophistication of expectations extended to the public service has resulted in a demand for highly skilled personnel. In order to compete effectively with the private sector to attract the right staff, salary adjustments at the level of senior management had to be made and greater flexibility in respect of remuneration had to be applied. This has resulted in an increase in the wage gap between the highest and lowest paid public servants and the creation of a governing elite. Salaries for senior managers in the public service, and particularly those in state-owned enterprises, have reached levels way beyond that of the average citizen, leading to a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption which is flaunted publicly. 

While the commitment of many a public servant might indeed be genuine, this lifestyle of luxury could easily result in a loss of touch with the citizens that they are meant to serve. The disjuncture between the comfortable environment of the elite and the harsh misery on the ground adversely affects the pace of delivery. Public servants easily use the trappings of bureaucracy to justify their tardiness in effecting change, having lost all sense of urgency because they have become numb to the pain of poverty.

The value system of the public service should be vigorously protected. Commitment, passion and integrity cannot be enforced; it must emanate from a culture of service. The introduction of more collective-orientated values as contained in the Batho Pele Principles is aimed at negating individualistic, self-centred tendencies and encouraging a culture of devotion to the greater good. These values need to be internalised by all public servants and those public servants that have embraced it should be celebrated as role models. Likewise, institutions established by Chapter 9 of the Constitution, need to play a greater role in ensuring that the values contained in the Bill of Rights are adhered to.  They should be the beacon of integrity and resist political interference so that they may ensure that public sector performs quantitatively and qualitatively. 

South Africa has a skilled and competent public service. Its steadfast dedication to excellence, within a context of collaborative governance based on social compacts, can enable us to successfully navigate any storm. This optimism of a brighter future is inspired by the closing remarks of President Ramaphosa, in which he said: “We find ourselves at a decisive moment in our history. It is a time of great difficulty and doubt, but also a time laden with opportunities. Over the last two years, we have worked together to build a foundation for progress. Now is the time for us to build on that foundation, to unite, to work, to persevere. We will not surrender our future to doubt, despair or division or to those who are permanently negative to the work that is being done to improve the lives of our people. We will continue our onward march to improve the lives of our people”.

* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security. 

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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