Civil Service Accountability

by | Jan 11, 2010 | Public Service | 0 comments

The Cape Times must be applauded for opening the debate on ‘uncivil servants’, and the ANC congratulated for suggesting that its practice of deployment in the public service needs to change.

When public servants are employed the motivation ought to be to appoint individuals who are capable of delivering in accordance with the constitutional requirements of being responsive to the needs of the people, efficiently, professionally and accountably.

The purpose of any public service job is determined by the needs of the people or what the Labour Relations Act, 1995 calls the applicable “operational requirements”. Although the Labour Relations Act only uses the term to justify the destruction of jobs and ‘no fault dismissals’, it is an equally important concept when planning for the correct structuring of jobs and organisations to deliver either the promised, or expected but in reality, the required, outputs.

This organisational planning process is further explained by s 6 (2) the Employment Equity Act 1998, which states: It is not unfair discrimination to
a. take affirmative action measures consistent with the purpose of this Act; or
b. distinguish, exclude or prefer any person on the basis of an inherent requirement of a job.

Over the years the Public Sector’s achievement of Employment Equity targets has been trumpeted, but unfortunately this has not translated into improved service delivery.

The spirit of the Employment Equity Act creates a well balanced approach to transformation and capacity building. If the structures and frameworks of this Act are used correctly, then compliance should be a simple process of matching available candidates to the requirements of the defined jobs.
Section 15 provides that: ‘(1) Affirmative action measures are measures designed to ensure that suitably qualified people from designated groups have equal employment opportunities and are equitably represented in all occupational categories and levels in the workforce of a designated employer.’

Because of the scattered nature of this description of the organisational planning process, some commentators may be critical of its ‘big-picture’ or theoretical approach. However, section 195 of the Constitution lists all the elements required to be specific on ‘how’ the public administration must be structured and managed, and ‘how’ public servants should perform to meet the inherent requirements of their jobs.

With all these laws, rules, regulations, codes and practices in place, the question is: how has our service delivery been allowed to deteriorate to the levels experienced today?

Whilst the knee-jerk reaction is to jump on the incorrectness, disruptiveness and even the illegality of politically inspired deployments the problem is far more deep-seated and lies in the interpretation of the law.

Sections 195 (1) (d) of the Constitution prescribes that: ‘Services must be provided impartially, fairly, equitably and without bias’ and section 195 (1) (f): ‘Public administration must be accountable.”

Consequently s 195 1 (d) deals with structure and management of public service departments and 195 1 (f) deals with ‘who’ is accountable for service delivery.

To deal with s 195 1 (f) first, if the statement that the ANC’s intention is to “revise” its practice of “deployment” to make it more “objective”, there is constitutionally based wisdom in that. If the reported practice is actually to appoint untrained and inexperienced ANC loyalists to key administrative, professional and technical posts, then the accountability for the institutional degradation lies fairly and squarely with the incompetence and lack of skill of those who accept such deployment and with those who deploy them.

For properly appointed public servants to be accountable to the people for their impartiality, fairness, equity and lack of bias, they need much more than a title and the pay cheque that follows – they need authority and freedom to act in the best interests of the people they serve, and thereby provide good service delivery. They ought not to be answerable to any political structures.

In South Africa, the word ‘power’ is usually used when referring to the ’empowerment’ of individuals to do their jobs. This is unfortunate, because the words ‘power’ and ‘authority’ are often incorrectly used as synonyms, causing confusion and consequently ‘authority’, as a term, has a bad public relations image.

Actually ‘power’ is the ‘bad-one’. Power is normally what tyrants and dictators use to exercise their might without consideration of the duties they should perform to earn the right to lead in a constitutionally compliant fashion. In doing so, these tyrants and dictators enslave others without their consent, denying them the rights and privileges of citizenship, changing the way they function and behave, and imposing duties, responsibilities and obedience to tyranny.

At this stage of the South African transformation, the ‘power’ relationship is subverted in that he who pays the piper (the taxpayer) does not play the tune. Added to this is the further concern that with the increasing evidence of factionalism within political organisations, there can be no guarantees of how these relationships will need to change for public servants to survive in their jobs. Regardless of any such changes, the certainty is that consequences will follow as regards the levels of service delivery.

As the service delivery levels of all spheres of government and state owned enterprises affect the lives of all South African citizens, we need to build a better understanding of accountability, i.e. ‘how’ individuals are ’empowered’ to make their decisions and ‘how’ they justify the outcomes of such decisions and the performance of their implementation – because, without the appropriate level of empowerment, an individual cannot be held accountable.

Ever since humans gathered to work in groups for a common purpose, starting with survival, there has been the need to understand the relationships, the organization, the planning, and the control of individuals’ contributions. Not unexpectedly, this understanding has become more complicated as civilization has evolved.

In South Africa, the Constitution is the legal framework for interrogating the behaviour of individuals and the structure of organizations that threaten our new democracy.

Fortunately, in the case of the public service, the processes of structuring and delegating authority are prescribed by law. Where these processes, including the assessment of competencies required, are not followed, the individuals responsible for appointing public servants are easily identified and made to account for their recruitment process decisions.

Where all the legal processes are followed, but the appointed official is not able to ‘deliver’, the problem will be either that of incapacity or poor performance.

In adopting our comprehensive labour legislation, the lawmakers anticipated such problems. Schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act, 1995 covers the fair process to correct performance problems within a reasonable time-scale. However, the accountability to correct, not only individual’s performance, but also to minimise the negative impact on service delivery lies with the ‘manager’ of that service. Following the established legal process can ensure a rapid turnaround of service delivery problems by exacting the necessary accountability.

Consequently, when it comes to analyzing and rectifying our service delivery problems it will be important for the public to know and understand the existing and proposed frameworks of authority and accountability.

In analyzing the sources of authority, at the one end of the scale individuals acquire authority through a job appointment. This authority is ‘mechanistic’ and the weakest form of empowerment. It also carries the risk of undue influence of senior officials who can appoint and decide future career options. This is a typical situation where deployment and accountability to a ‘master’ is possible.

At the other end of the scale individuals are empowered through their quest for knowledge, qualifications and experience in delivering successful outcomes. This source of authority is personal and difficult to ‘box’ into controllable work relationships. These individuals are ‘client needs’ focused, usually professionally qualified and highly skilled.

Successful service delivery requires organization. Organizations are living social organisms where individuals co-operate with one another in decision-making processes. Consequently, as people are the most flexible of all resources, they will have the most impact on the success or failure of delivery.

The economic reality of scarce resources dictates that the best structure of individuals’ authority will be that which ensures a ‘healthy’ mix and balance of public servants competing to meet the needs of the people and those who are charged with the monitoring of constraints and administrative controls.

Simply talking about the risks flowing from the practice of political deployment will not change the current levels of service delivery. We need to change the culture from the trend towards ‘power’ to that of authority, transparency and accountability.

Section 195 (1) h of the Constitution states: “Good human resource management and career-development practices to maximize human potential, must be cultivated.”

As we will all benefit from improved service delivery, we should get involved and participate in growing a performance culture in which public servants who can deliver on the constitutionally prescribed requirements, will be long serving, regardless of who the political masters of the day may be. Exacting accountability from the “uncivil service” is simply good stewardship by good citizens.

Daan Groeneveldt
Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa

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