A look into the Public Service: 30 years into democracy

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Sourced from SAnews.gov.za

Despite regularly receiving some tongue-lashing in the court of public opinion, many public servants have made an indelible mark in moving the country forward.

They do this with the recognition that an effective public service is a key cog in delivering services that improve the lives of citizens.

The Principal of the National School of Government (NSG), Professor Busani Ngcaweni said despite the many challenges facing the Public Service, public administration “is on an upward trajectory”.

As the country moves towards 30 years of democracy, Ngcaweni noted that despite some negative public sentiment on its efficacy, the Public Service has evolved a lot over the past 29-years.  In the early years of democracy, government had a mammoth task of putting in place an inclusive public service to serve all South Africans, including setting up democratic institutions.

The journey

Ngcaweni described the first public service, under former President Nelson Mandela, as “characterised by phenomenal growth and achievement,” adding that it was an intense period with rapid transformation.  “We had to transform the character of the Public Service, to serve more citizens. We had to transform and create one administration.”  He said the second generation (from 2008 to 2004) in public administration was that of both elected and appointed officials who worked to consolidate the gains of the first administration.

Government, through public servants, worked hard to come up with programmes that continue to benefit South Africans. “So, for example, during that first 10 years of democracy, you see the consolidation and expansion of the social security system. They did not hire consulting firms to create that system, it was created by public administrators,” he added.

It was during this time that the country hosted major conferences, including like the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) conference that led to the transformation of the then OAU into the African Union, and the World Racism Conference.

“This redefined South Africa in the eyes of the global community and of course there were laws that were legislated and implemented such as the Employment Equity Act, [1998 (Act 55 of 1998)] and the BEE [Black Economic Empowerment] and we were beginning to see a major growth as well in terms of black people who were working formally in the labour market,” he said.

Highlights from the third administration, led by former President Thabo Mbeki, include preparations for the country to host the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup – backed by a growing economy.  Public servants continued to offer innovative ways of delivering service to South Africans.

“We even launched the indigent project where those who were residing in municipalities [and] could not pay could be placed on the indigent register,” explained Ngcaweni.

The fourth administration, under former President Jacob Zuma’s leadership, saw the world cup being hosted on African soil for the first time.

“This world cup was prepared for by public servants. They worked on it, set up new institutions like the [National] Planning Commission, set up departments like [The Department of Performance] Monitoring and Evaluation”.

In 2009, government introduced a new approach to the treatment and management of HIV and AIDS, saving lives of many South Africans and paving way for better approaches in fighting the scourge.

Today, HIV positive South Africans have access to anti-retroviral drugs irrespective of their CD4 count.

Stumbling block

The global financial crisis in 2008 had a negative impact on the country’s economy. Ngcaweni noted that the country has still not fully recovered from the crisis.

“There was a major reversal we entered the period of care and maintenance for most of the problems of government,” said the head of the NSG.

The fifth administration continued with care and maintenance and there “was a kind of turmoil in public administration during that period”.

“We ended up having state capture and we had instability in many institutions of state and that took away the ability of public administrators to perform diligently.”

“But there was still some good things that were happening, like Operation Phakisa during that period but the focus just changed, there was major disruption in terms of people being focused and we didn’t do as much to recover the lost ground in terms of the economy,” he said.

An initiative of government, Operation Phakisa was designed to fast-track the implementation of solutions on critical development issues highlighted in the country’s National Development Plan (NDP).

The NDP is the country’s long-term plan for national development. It provides guidance for all Government policy formulation and implementation.

According to Ngcaweni the sixth administration is “more about rebuilding”.

Professionalisation of the public service

Ngcaweni’s assessment of the Public Service comes on the heels of the NSG having celebrated a decade of existence in October 2023.  The milestone comes after the approval of the National Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service.

The institution is an essential part of the professionalisation of the Public Service.

“In 2020/21, the NSG was training 12 000 people, today we are training 85 000 people and that change is because there is a national movement to build state capacity and everyone in the Public Service must return to school,” said Ngcaweni.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the NSG built an e-learning platform to allow public servants to access training remotely.

Political principals are also benefiting from programmes offered by the NSG and according to Ngcaweni, Ministers are the school’s “big clients” while the President and Deputy President attend their courses virtually.

Training also extends across political parties and traditional leaders.

He reiterated the importance of continuous learning among public servants.

“Public servants must see themselves as pilots and cabin crew. For you to retain your license as a crew member or to be in the cockpit, you must constantly return to the simulator because flight conditions are changing all the time,” he added.

Another project that the school is focusing on in order to strengthen the Public Service is the the Nyukela Public Service SMS Pre-entry Programme. Ngcaweni revealed that plans are underway to extend the programme to Deputy Directors and Assistant Directors.

He noted that there were some aspects of the National Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service that required the amendment of legislation.

“Three pieces of legislation are currently in Parliament for amendment to give effect to the framework – the Public Service Commission Bill, the Public Administration Management Amendment Bill and the Public Service Amendment Bill.”

Ethics and good governance

On what constitutes good governance, Ngcaweni said “It is about doing the right thing that serves the public even when no one is watching you. It must have an impact on those you are serving”.

He added that it is unethical for public servants to fail to deliver services when they have the means and resources. He is of the view that ethics can be taught and has emphasised the need for a national campaign.

“What teaching ethics means is that you make people aware of what is unethical. You give them the tools and the confidence of making decisions that are correct”.

Time at the NSG

Appointed to the top position in March 2020, Ngcaweni said his time in office has been a “roller-coaster with designing new programmes and implementing them”.

He is a hands-on leader.

“I made a decision that I am not going to demand from my colleagues what I am not going to be doing. I spend a lot of time in classrooms, boardrooms and in workshops leading from the front”.

The future of the public service

Almost 30 years into democracy, what does the future hold for the public service?  Ngcaweni believes the future is bright. He urged public servants to use available information like the Census 2022 results to reflect on what has been achieved since 1994 and what needs to be done.

“The bigger question is whether we will be able to sustain the momentum as public servants. “We cannot continue to bask in the glory of those who have achieved what is contained in the Census [2022 report] and not think about what will we, as a generation of public administrators, achieve.  “If we mess up institutions and if we squander public administration, 30 years later we will be in a different shape,” he concluded.  –SAnews.gov.za

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