Public Service Needs To Be Accountable and Transparent

The South African Presidency recently released its report entitled Towards A Fifteen-Year Review. While highlighting many governance and policy achievements, the Review also identifies a fundamental concern over the quality and integrity of public institutions, and the efficacy of the Public Service in particular. The Review criticises the “culture and orientation” of the Public Service, reporting that “too often public servants have been found falling short in service to the public”. It also notes weaknesses in the “interface between government and the public”, leading to widespread service delivery protests. See this article by Kate, and share your comments on the blog.

The Review cites evidence of dwindling confidence in the legitimacy of public institutions. Results of the Markinor Government Performance Barometer in recent years show a consistent decline in public approval for government’s ability to make “the right appointments to lead departments and agencies”, and to maintain transparency and accountability. Referring to the criminal justice sector in particular, the Review acknowledges public perceptions that “independent institutions have been impacted on by party-political dynamics”.

Recently, the politically-contested Western Cape produced a telling example of the blurring of lines between public institutions and political parties.

The advertising of more than 100 vacant positions in provincial government provoked furore from the Democratic Alliance (DA), which claimed that the ANC was attempting to fill key positions with party loyalists prior to elections, to ensure that provincial government is “ultimately accountable to Luthuli House” irrespective of political leadership in the province. The DA has called for a moratorium on further appointments, and that contracts due to expire should only be extended until the election.

Premier Lynne Brown maintains that most of these positions are for mid-level IT managers, and that new appointees will be accountable to the public, not the ANC. In a letter to the Cape Times, she argues that it is “ridiculous to suggest that the political leanings of mid-level public servants could be a factor before a decision is taken on whether to hire them or not”.

Despite Brown’s reassurances, some of the vacant positions do appear sensitive, particularly those related to policy analysis, legislative support, research and strategic advice. However, simply waiting for elections so that incoming leadership can make appointments is also not the best solution.

Rather, we should be returning to questions of what South Africa needs from the Public Service, and how best these needs can be met.

During the transition to democracy, policy-makers envisaged a transformed public service that replaced the inequities and inefficiencies of the apartheid bureaucracy with new values of impartiality, representation, and professionalism. These values are captured in Section 195 of the Constitution, which also specifies that while the appointment of “a number of persons on policy considerations is not precluded”, these must be regulated in legislation.

The 1997 Code of Conduct for the Public Service prohibits public servants from promoting or prejudicing any political party or interest group in fulfilling their duties, and from taking part in political activities in the workplace. The Code also requires public servants to give honest and impartial advice to higher authorities, irrespective of political leadership.

In reality, it is difficult to know the extent of political partisanship and deployment within the Public Service, as is clear in the scramble for the Western Cape. Yet faltering public faith in institutions suggests it may be time to re-claim the Constitutional values of impartiality, and pursue a more neutral administration.

Many other countries have politically-neutral public administrations, which still allow space for some political appointments at senior levels, particularly in political and policy advisory roles. While this model does not differ entirely from the South African framework, there are real differences in regulation and enforcement.

The UK, for example, has strict guidelines regulating the behaviour of civil servants, from participation in opinion surveys, to public expression of political views, attending events hosted by organisations with partisan links, running for election, holding of political office, and post-employment business activities. Specific guidelines also exist for politically-appointed Special Advisers.

The British Civil Service also aims to attract and retain professional employees who fundamentally wish to serve the public, through rigorous recruitment and selection, competitive remuneration, merit-based promotions and clear career-pathing.

Without suggesting that South Africa need adopt a model from elsewhere, there are lessons to be learned. Much more efficiency and transparency is needed in recruitment and appointment processes: the Department of Public Service and Administration estimates that positions taken an average of fifteen months to fill. And while appointments must be based on competency and qualifications, there needs to be a larger, collective debate over how to achieve real transformation, particularly in terms of language and culture. Nepotism and cronyism must not feature in Public Service appointments.

Greater transparency and public scrutiny over appointments, as well as performance agreements and outcomes, will support increased efficiency and public confidence.

Certainly, both monitoring and enforcement must be strengthened, particularly around compliance with the Public Service Code of Conduct. The Public Service Commission (PSC) reports that only one-fourth of departments monitor political activities in the workplace. The findings of an Integrity Thermometer survey suggest that many public servants perceive their colleagues to be abusing their positions for the benefit of political parties and interest groups.

The PSC must continue with its monitoring function, but departments themselves must surely strengthen compliance, or face remedial actions.

And much greater transparency is required about the extent of political deployment within the Public Service, along with clear and enforceable boundaries regulating posts that may be filled in this manner.

A “spoils system” that rewards political loyalty with Public Service appointments erodes institutional memory, disrupts service delivery, and threatens the public interest as paramount. These consequences often disproportionately impact on the poor, at the coalface of government service delivery.

Rather, South Africa needs a more independent and transparent public service with professional credibility, which serves public interests steadily, reliably and impartially, even throughout the so-called silly political season.

See this on the Idasa website here –

This article first appeared in the Cape Times on Wednesday 22nd October 2008.


2 Responses

  1. I have dealings with Provincial governments and to say the least, it was shocking.
    They do not have procedures and are not interested to do their jobs.
    On what I have seen and experienced, I will fire the people responsible. They are stealing form us. When someone is getting a salary to do a job, and does not do it, he does not deserve to get a salary. And I am speaking of senior positions.

  2. If you want to read a reader’s feedback 🙂 , I rate this post for 4/5. Detailed info, but I have to go to that damn msn to find the missed bits. Thank you, anyway!

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