Professional public service key to development

The National Development Plan (NDP) recognises that an effective, capable developmental state is essential if we are to eradicate underdevelopment, structural poverty, massive inequality and unemployment.

The public service is the most important part of such a state. These are the men and women who not only make South Africa work, but are the engineers of a new society built on the principles of democracy, human dignity and social justice.

They are not paper pushers. They must be capable of expanding the frontiers of human fulfilment and improving the quality of life of all our people.

 The NDP provides principles for developing such a professional, efficient public service. These principles derive from, and are embedded in, our Constitution. They are inspired by the view that the state, its institutions of accountability and its agents are acting on behalf of the marginalised and poor.

To achieve an efficient developmental state, we require a visionary, capable and committed leadership as well as effective national development planning.

Twenty-two years into democracy, South Africans deserve a more coherent state supported by a quality, professional and meritocratic bureaucracy. South Africa cannot afford a senior public service that is alienated, elitist and self-serving. Care, humility and service towards the disempowered, vulnerable and the needy must be the defining quality of a civil servant.

 One of the challenges that the diagnostic report of the National Planning Commission identified was the instability in leadership and high turnover of senior and technical staff in the public service. We must do more to incentivise senior public servants to focus on building institutions and capacity instead of pursuing short-term goals.

Another challenge is the muddling of lines of accountability between political and administrative principals. We must institutionalise a proper, effective and efficient political-administrative interface. We need to better delineate the roles of Ministers and heads of department. Disagreements and different roles need not amount to separation of purpose.

It is critical that public servants avoid getting involved in inter-party or intra-party politics. They need to serve all citizens irrespective of political persuasion. Public servants should faithfully and enthusiastically implement the mandate of the governing party without seeking to advance the partisan interests of that party. They should be rewarded for their competence, not their allegiance.

As a democratic and accountable state, the interface between the Executive and Parliament is a critical feature of our work. It is important that this relationship is regular, dynamic, robust and free of undue tension or conflict.

Parliament has an obligation to monitor the management of departments and the use of public funds. As such, Parliament has an important role to play in making government operations more transparent and increasing public trust in government.

Senior public servants provide invaluable support to Ministers in accounting to the various structures of Parliament. However, the demands of this role need to balanced with their many other responsibilities, specifically ensuring that the state machinery effectively implements government programmes.

There is a need to improve systems and promote greater predictability and efficiency in the interface between Parliament and the Executive. Parliamentary structures should be alive to the many demands on the time of Ministers and Directors-General. The Executive must work with Parliament to ensure that the exercise of accountability does not undermine the implementation of the very programmes on which government is supposed to account.

There is also a need to examine the structures of coordination and accountability within government itself. There is a sense that too much time is spent in forums with overlapping mandates or in reporting on compliance with regulations that are unnecessarily onerous.

Our people expect all spheres of government to cooperate and collaborate.

They expect public servants to subordinate their individual interests to the interests of the greater good.

They expect and deserve conduct that reinforces the legitimacy of the state.

They expect public servants to lead by example in building trust, confidence and respect for the rule of law.

Addressing the Public Service Commission in 1996, former President Nelson Mandela said: “For the majority of South Africans, the Public Service was seen as a hostile instrument of an oppressive minority. We have an immense challenge to build a state that is truly oriented towards the service of all South Africans; that is equitably representative of our society; that is guided by the broad vision of a better life for all; and that is dedicated to making efficient use of public resources.”

 Let us use our state as an instrument of liberation. Let us use public resources prudently to build a non-racial, non-sexist society while we undo the inequities of the past. Let us be the engineers of a new society.


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