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What will it take to renew South Africa’s public sector?

A focus on concrete problems provides a way to cut through endless preoccupation with empty initiatives.
Image: GCIS

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has linked his cabinet reshuffle to a larger purpose. As he put it:

We are unwavering in our determination to build a capable state, one which is ably led and which effectively serves the needs of the people.

Realising this vision will take a transformation in the way in which South Africans conceive of how to achieve public purposes – one that prioritises people and problem-solving over a preoccupation with plans and systems.

South Africans of many ideological hues have in their minds an image of the public sector as a well-oiled, top-down machine – always effective in delivering on clear goals set by planners and political leaders. “Get the plans right.” “Co-ordinate effectively.” “Fix the systems.”

These become the mantras of reform. But continuing pursuit of these dicta will not get the country where it needs to go.

For one thing, the image of a well-oiled machine presumes an omniscience which no organisation anywhere, public or private, actually has. For another, systems reform is a painstaking process; its gains are measured in years, with gains in the quality of service provision coming only after the upstream improvements are in place. Time is running out.

Most fundamentally, the preoccupation with plans and systems ignores a reality that increasingly has become recognised the world over – that, in shaping feasible ways forward, context matters. Even in places where bureaucratic “insulation” seems to prevail, public administrative systems are embedded in politics.

In some settings, background political, economic and social conditions support top-down bureaucratic machines. Such conditions are very far from South Africa’s current realities.

But South Africa’s current public sector challenges are anything but unique. Indeed, counter-intuitive as it might sound to many South Africans, its public sector works somewhat better than those of most other middle-income countries, and those of almost all low-income countries. Yet many countries, even in the midst of messiness, have managed to achieve gains.


By focusing on problems and on people.

Problems and people

A focus on concrete problems provides a way to cut through endless preoccupation with empty initiatives – endless plans for reform, endless upstream processes of consultation. Processes that are performative rather than practical, too general to lead anywhere. Instead, gains in public capacity can come via a different path – through learning-by-doing, focusing in an action-oriented way on very specific challenges, and on evoking energy to address them by the responsible departments (or individual state-owned enterprises).

Action to address concrete problems needs to come, of course, from South Africa’s public officials. How to evoke their sense of agency?

Engaging with South Africa’s public officials, one quickly discovers that even the best of them are deeply disillusioned by their experiences. Yet many continue to have a deep reservoir of commitment to service. Evoking commitment is a classic challenge confronting managers everywhere. As Francis Fukuyama puts it:

All good managers (private and public) know that it is ultimately the informal norms and group identities that will most strongly motivate the workers in an organisation to do their best … They thus spend much more time on cultivating the right ‘organisational culture’ than on fixing the formal lines of authority.

Looking beyond the public sector, what of South Africa’s citizens more broadly?

A focus on people also involves transforming the relationship between the public sector and civil society (including the private sector). For reasons both good and bad, public officials generally engage with civil society cautiously. The good reason is that such relationships can all too easily fester corruptly in the shadows. The bad reason is a more generalised wariness – fuelled by a combination of arrogance, fear and inertia – to step outside the comfort zone of tightly managed bureaucratic processes.

The benefits of a transformed relationship can be large. It can be the basis for new, cross-cutting alliances between public sector reformers and reformers within civil society, across national, provincial and local levels. Investment in such alliances can help developmentally oriented stakeholders to overcome resistance to change, including by pushing back against predation.

To renew a relationship, all parties need to change their behaviour. What new behaviours does civil society need to learn?

Civil society and transparency

Shaped by its history, South Africa’s civil society organisations generally focus on holding government to account. This is a constricted vision of the role of civil society in a democracy. Indeed, it sometimes can have the unintended consequence of fuelling cynicism and despair, thereby deepening dysfunction. The Global Partnership for Social Accountability highlights how less confrontational approaches can add value:

We have learned that focusing only on scrutinising and verifying government actions can have limited value in our problem solving. When they engage to focus on the problem at hand, civil society, citizens and public sector actors are better able to deliver solutions collaboratively – especially when they prioritise learning. When social accountability mechanisms are isolated from public sector processes they are not as effective as collaborative governance. Collective action requires efforts that build bridges.

Transparency remains key. Transparency in how civil society engages with officials in the public sector can reduce the risk that more collaborative governance becomes a vehicle for corrupt collusion. Transparency vis-à-vis outcomes can signal to citizens that public resources are not being wasted but are helping to improve results. The combination of participation and transparency can help enhance social solidarity and legitimacy of the public domain.

As Ramaphosa put it in his cabinet reshuffle speech:

The task of rebuilding our economy and our society requires urgency and focus. It requires cooperation among all sectors of society and the active involvement of all South Africans.

Or, as per Hugh Masekela’s classic song (quoted by Ramaphosa in his first state of the nation address to parliament as president in early 2018, “Thuma Mina”. Send me.

This article builds on a piece that appeared in The Conversation’s ‘foundation’ series.The Conversation

Brian Levy, Professor of the Practice of International Development, Johns Hopkins University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.



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Half the number of “public servants” and increase that Half’s salaries by a third :
Fire the other half .

The question is far too difficult and gives a headache. Lets talk about ensuring that our political partners stay happy about getting such good pay for doing next to nothing.

The quality of building material used in construction projects is of the utmost importance. The bridge will fail if the engineer uses inferior materials. The bridge is guaranteed to fail if the law prescribes that the construction material should “represent the material in the immediate vicinity”.

The public sector is guaranteed to fail if it is supposed to represent the demographics of the country. No amount of planning by clueless Central Planners, who also represent the same dysfunctional demographics, can prevent the average voter from turning his environment into a manifestation of his mindset. When communalists, who are unaccountable and irresponsible per definition, receive the responsibility to make laws, they will act with impunity while they equalize the infrastructure with their mindset.

The right to vote, combined with the communalist mindset, is a weapon of mass destruction that will eventually lead to a failed state. Privatization of all public services provides the only solution. Services can be privatized voluntarily early on, or entrepreneurs will come in later to fill the void when municipalities implode. Privatization is unavoidable.

Your last sentence is completely accurate. However, the big challenge at present is to figure out how to stop paying double taxes – for the failed, official services that we don’t get, and for the privatized services. At present, we’re paying taxes for government education, health services and policing we don’t and can’t use, and then more taxes for private security, private health care and private schooling. The minute we figure this out; the minute we figure out how to only pay for the latter, is the minute we free ourselves from the failed state.

The situation will rectify itself when we reach that stage. A failed state implies that the revenue service will also implode as competent people find alternative employment opportunities elsewhere.

Taxpayers will leave, or simply disappear, long before we reach that stage though. Socialism always destroys the tax base and hyperinflation kicks the process into high gear. The formal economy disappears along with municipal and SOE structures. The formal banking industry goes underground and money exchanges hands on the black market. SARS will not have access to these informal dealings. The taxi industry, street vendors, spaza shops, shebeens, zamma-zammas, construction mafia, and corrupt politicians do not pay taxes.

The informal economy in the townships paints the future for South Africa. Socialism always leads to deindustrialization and turns a formal economy into an informal one. We have gone far down this road. Taxation is a “western concept”. Bribes are the communalist version of taxation.

Let me see if I can find some of my old NAT handbooks.
From the years when everything worked……

The old system was there for a reason; before the age of political correctness, our ancestors were realistic about the limitations of what would be possible.

So true. Shortly after 1994 I also bought into this whole guilt trip thing like so many others. After a while, I came to the realisation that there is a reason for everything and on balance, people are rational creatures (although it is not true of all people). Looking back there was indeed “method in the madness” and our situation here in SA is extremely unique in the world. It is the only place, as far as I know, where European colonists settled permanently without being the majority. (Of course, Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada is the opposite.)

Only a miracle can save the public sector. Everybody must pray!

Pray….. AND pay. Hence SARS’s renewed vigour!

In any business (and government is, or should be a business) success is determined by the founder, Buffet, Jobs, Gates, Ackerman, Rupert, Oppenheimer, Gore, Saad, Bezos, Zuckerberg (love them or hate them) etc and then on the management team they hire to realise their vision.

In the ANC/SA we have no leadership, no management team and no vision. So the current status of the local economy should come as no surprise but rather miraculous that it still rumbles along.

Ironically, the Springbok rugby team can win the world cup and beat the Lions 2 to1 but our government cannot eliminate pit latrines in rural schools.

… and you can “focus on the problems” as much as you like but as with myself, I can focus on the problem of quantum computing as much as I like and never come close to a viable application, so too the current SA leadership can “focus on the problems”…. but like myself and quantum computing, they simply do not have even vaguely the skills to do anything about it.

So now what?

The only way that we can renew South Africa’s public sector is to remove the ANC.

Only way

The only way to fix the public sector is to destroy it completely (this project well advanced) and then, um, to pick it up…

Yeap – you mean another turnaround plan – like at SAA and the SOEs!

I have worked with several municipal managers who were appointed (read deployed) on their political connection. They did not have the knowledge, background or the qualifications for the job. Having to get results in a position far above their capabilities, they all adopted a management style of fear and division. There was no effort of cultivating a team culture. The result was that the employees turned on one another to win the manager’s favour. The only way to save the public sector is to appoint managers that are qualified and equipped to handle the level of the post. Only then they will have the confidence to grow a people orientated team culture. The policy of people appointed way above their capabilities has manifested in a number of failed public sector organisations. Government must by now be fully aware of this failure, but they keep on stubbornly with their “deployment” policy. Unless they urgently replace incompetent cadres with qualified people, the public sector will just keep on deteriorating.

More endless promises whilst the public sector unions control the government. Just more of the same with lipstick!!!

“Say one thing . . . do the opposite. Better still, do nothing”.

Does anybody still think that the same useless, corrupt creators of the gigantic problem have the ability to fix it ?
A solution can only be achieved without these ANC cadres.

Fire them all!! If you have a stalwart name you are fired too. They keep moving failed people into new portfolio’s. This is management FAILURE ON BEHALF OF THE PRESIDENT. You had ministers (UN-ELECTED) SHUTTING DOWN CIGARETTE SALES AND ALCOHOL SALES. While her son was (allegedly) involved in a local cigarette manufacturing business????????????? Where’s Joematt-Petersen??? Hasn’t she done enough damage?? She’s still earning her salary. To put it eloquently from a famous president “YOU’RE FIRED!!!!” THEY ARE HELPING THE POOR BY MAKING THE COUNTRY POORER. now THAT’S GREAT GOVERNMENT.

As long as white people are sidelined, Nothing will improve.

End of comments.





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