Where are the mandarins to lead the public service renaissance?

In the remote areas of China, leading scholars are embedded in the work of party and state. Yet, they retain a critical distance which allows them to offer the sharpest critique of the state and the evolution of society.

Pseudo-scholarship and clamouring for autonomy are no excuses for disengagement. For its part, the state imposes vision-setting, good governance and accountability obligations on itself.

Translating the political mandate

The Communist Party has a vision set out in a five-year development plan – their version of our National Development Plan (NDP). The plan is divided into sub-programmes, action plans and training programmes for managers of state departments and state-owned companies (SOCs). In turn, the five-year plan forms the basis of senior managers’ performance measures. Academics make this plan possible and offer research and training interventions in various academies.

This brings me to the second point of this unmandated reflection – South Africa’s political-administrative interface conundrum. Performance measures of senior managers have very little to do with the strategy and tactics of the mandating party. This weakens the hegemony of the governing party over top levels of bureaucracy. The picture becomes even more complicated when we take into account that even the medium-term strategic framework is not the basis of key performance indicators for the senior civil service. (At least now work is advancing to locate the NDP at the centre of the performance management system.)

Again, while some might celebrate this for the strategic distance it creates between the executive and the bureaucracy, the reality is that this conundrum stunts the ability of the executive to hold the bureaucracy accountable. In the end, the public is disadvantaged because the bureaucracy implements programmes not set out in the electoral mandate.

Eventually, too many perverse incentives are created on the system. Senior managers can trick the current performance management system to get the best benefit with very limited effort and effect. This we have already seen entrenching itself as a global practice with executives of sinking global financial institutions being handsomely rewarded even as public funds were expended in bailout schemes.

From quantity to quality: a new measurement approach

It is becoming increasingly desirable that senior managers are judged on how they are transforming society instead on just whether they get clean audits and meet quantitative targets. Qualitative measures of performance that take into account indicators such as impact, efficiency and sustainability must be applied. Such an approach will alter the thinking, as senior bureaucrats would begin to appreciate their role as change agents.

As we observe from China and other countries in East Asia, senior bureaucrats are conscientious self-driven reformers. They initiate change and innovation. Hence, in 30 years, China has achieved what it took North America and Western Europe over 200 years, civil wars and revolutions to achieve.

As an aspirant developmental state, we need a similar mentality in South Africa, where senior managers see themselves as the mandarins – change agents with the mandate, authority and will to transform society under the authority of the executive. After all, the Constitution, the Public Service Act and the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) give us the authority to do so.

We should not be post-colonial copy-cats. But we should, like the evolution of South Africa itself, embrace international experiences, borrow from the best progressive traditions, infuse our own traditions and innovations and thus produce the best we can under the circumstances. We should learn from the successes and failures of others, especially those in East Asia who stood with us during the times of colonialism and apartheid. Unlike the West, China has not imposed on us manuals of how to run the state and the economy. They are offering to the world their own experiences and models and leaving the rest to us to choose and implement.

Unlocking the political administrative interface contradictions is a two-way street. Our wait-and-see approach is counterproductive. As politicians reform laws governing the public service, so should senior managers innovate and lead internal management reforms, including changing management practices, setting bold goals and targets for ourselves and the people we manage. There are readily available techniques of improving productivity, change management and technological adaptation from other sectors.

There is already precedence for germinating the seeds of this senior management revolution being contemplate

We all know how the South African Revenue Service and Home Affairs have been transformed – the latter making a turnaround in odds-defying speed of less than five years and the former being the envy of tax collection authorities globally.

Ingredients of these positive stories include:

  • Clear goal setting: prioritising quality of public services rendered and speed of delivery,
  • Cohesion: which sees all levels of the organisation working towards a common goal,
  • Exercise of leadership by senior managers: executives who lead by example, implement relevant training programmes, motivate staff and open space career advancement,
  • Innovation: this is perhaps the most critical success factor which pertains adaptation of latest technologies, thinking, organisational models and systems which improve efficiency and impact, and
  • Customer orientation: this entails putting the people first, not what benefits and accolades managers derive from occupying senior positions in the bureaucracy.

Need for reform

The need for urgent reform is clear. Starting with senior managers in the state and State Owned Corporations having a national conversation answering the questions:

  • As a generation, will we discover or betray our mission of uplifting the wellbeing of all South Africans, catalysing prosperity that benefits all?
  • If the mandate of the first post-94 generation of mandarins was to build a single government (administration) of South Africa and succeed in that task, what will the current generation of bureaucrats be remembered for?
  • In fact, what are we leading as a generation?
  • How are we changing the course of history?

These are some of the questions we should be contemplating, in an attempt to illuminate the path towards advancing society, working complimentarily with those who carry the electoral mandate.

Let us hasten to commend efforts by the Public Service and Administrating Department and the Public Service Commission who are instituting reforms aimed at resolving some of the niggling political administrative interface contradictions. Alongside these reforms the mandarins should be initiating a robust discourse and putting measures in place to accelerate smart planning and innovation.

Again, these are weighty issues our scholars are not discussing besides recycling stats about corruption and service delivery protests. As a result, the knowledge base to manage transformation is not deepening and widening. Most academics are so preoccupied with criticism instead of advancing theories and practices of change management to the extent of transmitting the art of criticism to public sector managers themselves. No wonder some doubt themselves and the viability of the transformation project they are supposed to lead.

Public commentators would say as rebuttal: “the ANC and the government it leads are antagonistic towards academics and intellectuals”. This is delusional self-hate as repugnant as the senior public servants’ equally unproductive refrain: “We don’t have the space to innovate. The space is occupied by micro-managing politicians”.

Both views must be refuted. Academics can and should be as sharp as a needle, but they should serve their primary role: to build capacity (through globally competitive training) and lead innovation through insightful research and development in line with the national vision set by those democratically elected to lead the state and society.

The mandarins in turn should, in accordance with the powers derived from the Constitution, the Public Service Act and the PFMA, translate the political mandate into measurable short, medium and long-term plans. They should adopt and adapt modern change management and continuous improvement practices. They should employ technology to improve productivity and efficiency. They should put the public first in accordance with the Batho-Pele principles. But most of all, they should retain and demonstrate the highest level of appreciation and commitment to the project of building a national democratic society.

After all, we should be active, not passive, members of the continuing national democratic revolution. A positive posture should motivate us to negate the temptation to be satisfied with “meeting of targets” and key performance areas. Finally, we should master the art of criticism and self-criticism. History has proven that those who constantly question the efficacy of their efforts are more likely to emerge with better ideas and instruments to improve delivery.

Choice or no choice: that is the context in which history will judge us. But it starts with self-imagination. What we think of ourselves, what we imagine our historic role to be will determine where we feature in the chronicles of post-apartheid transformation. Of course self-imagination is intertexually linked to national imagination and aspirations. It requires new thinking that positions both the intellectuals and senior bureaucrats as equal strategic partners in the project of building a caring developmental state.

>> Comrade Busani Ngcaweni is editor of “The Future we Chose: Emerging Perspectives on the Centenary of the ANC”, published by AISA/HSRC Press

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