When I was elected to the position of President of South Africa, I said that building an efficient, capable and ethical state free from corruption was among my foremost priorities.
Only a capable, efficient, ethical and development-oriented state can deliver on the commitment to improve the lives of the people of this country.
This means that the public service must be staffed by men and women who are professional, skilled, selfless and honest.
They must be committed to upholding the values of the Constitution, and must, as I said in my inaugural speech, “faithfully serve no other cause than that of the public”.
Over the past two weeks, public consultations have been underway on an important policy document that will give greater impetus to our efforts to bolster, strengthen and capacitate the civil service.
The draft National Implementation Framework towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service aims to build a state that better serves our people, that is insulated from undue political interference and where appointments are made on merit.
The framework was approved by Cabinet in November last year and structured consultation with various sectors of society are now underway.
Twenty-seven years into democracy, it can be said of the public service that while several pockets of excellence exist, we have serious challenges in many government departments with regards to skills, competence and professionalism.
All too often, people have been hired into and promoted to key positions for which they are neither suitable nor qualified. This affects government performance, but also contributes to nepotism, political interference in the work of departments, lack of accountability, mismanagement and corruption.
There is also the related problem of political and executive interference in the administration of the public service. One need only to look at the instability in government departments when senior managers are swopped or replaced each time a new Minister is appointed.
Directors-General and provincial heads of departments are particularly affected. In some departments, DGs, HoDs and executive managers have had stability of tenure, enabling the departments to function with little disruption. In most of these departments where there is leadership stability, audit outcomes tend to be positive and public funds can be accounted for. Where there is a high turnover of heads of department, there is often administrative turmoil.
One of the key recommendations made in the draft framework is that the public service must be depoliticised and that government departments must be insulated from politics.
Professionalisation is necessary for stability in the public service, especially in the senior ranks. Public servants must be able to continue doing their jobs “regardless of any changes of Ministers, Members of the Executive Council or Councillors within the governing party in charge of the administration, or changes to political parties after elections”.
We are proposing a number of far-reaching reforms, such as extending the tenure of Heads of Department based on merit and performance, doing occupation-based competency assessments and involving the Public Service Commission in the interviews of Directors-General and Deputy Directors-General.
Introducing integrity tests for all shortlisted individuals will help so that we can recruit civil servants who can serve honestly. We also need to extend the compulsory entrance exams that we introduced in April 2020 beyond senior management. Successful developmental states have similar measures which help advance professionalism within the public service.
As we note in the draft framework, “the bureaucracy must continue to loyally and diligently implement the political mandate set by voters and the party, but to refrain from being political actors themselves.”
We are suggesting a more rigorous approach towards recruitment and selection of public servants, induction and performance management. This includes continuous learning and a clear professional development path for every public servant.
The draft Framework puts emphasis on the need to hold public servants accountable for irregularities, to do away with a culture of impunity in the mismanagement and misappropriation of state resources.
Professionalising the public service involves training for accounting officers across all spheres of government on the applicable legislative provisions.
The National School of Government has a vital role to play in this regard.
Professionalism is not only about having the right qualifications and technical skills, but also about having appropriate standards of respect, courtesy and integrity in dealing with members of the public.
The public service is diverse, with a huge range of skills, qualifications and capabilities. Many public servants have specialised skills that are necessary for the effective provision of services. It is therefore not necessarily the case that we need a smaller public service: what we actually need is a fit-for-purpose public service with suitable skills, a professional ethic and a commitment to serving the people.
The men and women of the public service need to be capacitated to play their role in driving development and consolidating democracy. This is our best guarantee of a capable state that serves the interests of citizens.
I call on you to be part of the public consultation process around this draft framework, which is available on the National School of Government’s website, and to make your voice heard.
The public service does not belong to any one party, nor should it be the domain of any particular interest group. It should not be a law unto itself.
The public service belongs to the people of South Africa. It must serve them and them alone.