Fixing a failing state

James Myburgh assesses the NDP's proposals for professionalising the public service

In an article earlier this year the late Lawrie Schlemmer noted that a breakdown of World Economic Forum's ratings of South African competitiveness revealed a society "with a split personality. The highest rankings are the legacy of a developed, first world corporate sector. The lowest rankings are evidence of the decay of crucial aspects of governance that have fallen below developing world standards." The state, Schlemmer argued, was on the "cusp of disaster" with, for example, a hugely costly education system that is so bad the majority of school leavers are essentially unemployable.

The diagnostic report produced by the National Planning Commission in June raised similar concerns. Of the nine main challenges facing South Africa that it identified five related directly to state incapacity: "the standard of education for most black learners is of poor quality", "corruption is widespread", "public services are uneven and often of poor quality", "a widespread disease burden is compounded by a failing public health system"; and infrastructure is "poorly located, under-maintained and insufficient".

The National Development Plan ("the Plan") released by the Commission earlier this month is an ambitious effort to meet and overcome those challenges over the next two decades. The question is whether this plan will succeed where all its many predecessors failed. As Schlemmer observed South Africa can "challenge the world in one form of production - the output of arcane and overly ambitious policy documents that will wondrously claim to fix all these problems. The record, however, is that they will fail the test of implementation."

The Plan is alive to this threat. It states: "A plan is only as credible as its delivery mechanism is viable. A capable state is an essential precondition for South Africa's development.... There is a real risk that South Africa's national plan could fail because the state is incapable of implementation." The success of the Plan rests heavily on its proposals to reverse state decay.

In many ways the Plan's assessment of the state of the state is hardnosed and realistic. It notes that the state has excelled at doing the easier things - such as paying out grants and providing water and electricity - and "faltered at the difficult things such as improving education, promoting employment and building houses close to jobs."

The problem is certainly not that public servants are underpaid, by either local or international standards. The Plan notes that "deputy director used to be considered a senior post, but today it is often treated as a junior post people can enter almost straight out of university - and on a salary higher than that of the best new entrants in many developed countries. Starting salaries are also significantly higher than equivalent entry-level posts in the private sector. " (My emphasis)

Despite the good pay on offer there is a "deficit in skills and professionalism affecting all elements of the public service. At senior levels, reporting and recruitment structures allow for too much political interference in selecting and managing senior staff." Lines of accountability are blurred. Directors general are appointed by the cabinet, not the minister. In turn the minister appoints public servants to civil service positions below the DG.

Similar problems apply in the parastatals where there is "clear evidence of political influence by the ruling party" in appointments which, in turn, creates confusion and blurs lines of accountability. "Are chief executives accountable to the political party, to the President, to Cabinet, to the Minister of Enterprises or to the board?"

The skills and expertise that public service staff possess, the Plan states, "are not always valued, and status or connections are often prized more than expertise." Graduates meanwhile often don't know how to embark on a public service career, while the public service is often unable to fill more junior posts. Government also lacks "many key professional skills, and is suffering the consequences of its inability to reproduce expertise. The shortage is particularly severe at municipal level, where municipalities require engineers to build, maintain and operate infrastructure."

The alternative presented by the Plan is to professionalise most state institutions from the education system - where school "principals should be selected purely on merit" - to the police service. "The current emphasis on ‘political deployment' needs to be replaced by a focus on building a professional public services that serves government, but is sufficiently autonomous to be insulated from political patronage."

"A professional public service", the Plan states, "is one where people are recruited and promoted on the basis of merit and potential, rather than connections or political allegiance. The public service should attract highly skilled people, binding them together by cultivating a sense of professional common purpose and a commitment to working towards developmental goals."

These proposals run completely against the tide of ANC policy since that party's accession to power. The ANC's January 8th statement of 1996 announced that "It is also critically important that the instruments of governance be structured and motivated to fulfil the democratically expressed will of the people." This proceeded to be done, over the next several years, through the deployment of party cadres - who embodied the "will of the people" - to all centres of power, and the aggressive pursuit of the goal of demographic representivity.

During this period the delusion took hold that skills and expertise counted for nothing, and loyalty to the party meant everything. Huge sums of money were spent pensioning off expert professionals from the state, in an effort to attain the sacred goals of racial transformation. This lunacy spread across society with Jackie Selebi's appointment as chief of police in 1999 being applauded by most newspapers.

The Plan's proposals on the state are an acknowledgment that we simply cannot carry on like this. This is hugely significant coming as it does from a government commission made up, to a large degree, of the ANC intelligentsia (including one of the main architects of cadre deployment). 

In the preface to his class work, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay noted "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." The ideological delusions of the past have not been shaken off completely by the authors of the report. Despite the dire consequences they document they nonetheless insist that the ANC's policy of cadre deployment was the correct one at the time.

Unlike policemen and school principals judges, the Plan suggests, need not be appointed on the basis of merit and legal expertise. Instead, emphasis should be placed on "candidates' progressive credentials and transformatory judicial philosophy and expertise" (whatever that means).

Given the enormity of the task - that of reversing a rot that has set in across the board - the specific proposals advanced by the Plan come across as somewhat feeble. Indeed the Plan shies away from directly advocating the most needed reforms.

One way to facilitate the entry of skilled professionals back into the public service would be to abolish the current racial barriers to entry. The shortage of professional skills in the Public Service is, to a substantial degree, artificially generated. It is a result of an ideologically driven refusal to appoint, promote or offer reliable career paths to (non-ANC) white South Africans.

However, the Plan does not directly advocate lifting these racial restrictions. It insists instead that "there is no inherent tension" between a "meritocratic recruitment system" and the so-called "affirmative action" measures used to produce a "public service that is broadly representative of the country's population". (One could argue that the conflicts between these two goals can be managed. But to state that there is "no inherent tension" between them is not an intellectually serious position.)

The Plan says the Public Service Commission should be strengthened, and its independence shored up, but it does not advocate restoring its direct powers over recruitment. It is difficult to see however how patronage, with all its attendant evils, can be weeded out the system without a powerful body to drive the process.

The Plan also recommends the initiation of a "formalised graduate recruitment scheme to attract talented graduates." Again this is a good idea, but it does not go far enough. Entry into the Public Service should ideally be done through open, non-racial, competitive examinations administered by an independent Public Service Commission. Last year, for instance, a million Chinese sat their country's annual civil service exams, competing with each other for some 16,000 places on offer.

(The political challenge in South Africa, in the short to medium term, would be to give those emerging from our many awful government schools a stake in the merit system. But this could probably be done through some kind of two tier entry.)

There may well be better ways of making appointments, but implementing a merit system in the public service is not simply about ensuring that government institutions run efficiently. It is also about setting a moral example to broader society: That personal advancement can and will be attained through education, hard work and the accumulation of expertise, not simply through ethnic preferment, knowing the right people or belonging to the political party or faction in power. This is the "secret" of successful societies and groups.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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