Those of us familiar with the public sector in South Africa know that there is an ongoing lack of responsibility in driving much-needed transformation across the various spheres of government. There are those who are in a position to effect change, but a number of obstacles hinder success. Also, those in need of aid have a negative perception of those who can assist. And in the absence of accountability, the cycle of devolution continue.
Consider the following scenario. An individual finds himself in a body of water with no means to stay afloat and unable to swim ashore. Flanking the shore are several individuals, each positioned at a vantage point that offers a clear view of the person slowly sinking. However, rather than aiding the person in need, those ashore merely look on despite the glaring need for intervention. With those who can make a difference choosing to remain ashore, eventually that individual will be beyond saving.
Which of these bystanders has a duty to act? The simple answer is that despite being able to put measures in place to aid the drowning individual, the bystanders are not under any obligation to assist − and such is the current predicament in the public sector.
To clarify the role-players in this scenario and unpack the public sector narrative, we begin with the individual in need, who represents our government. Currently, a number of ongoing challenges prevent the government from reaching the state of maturity required to serve its citizens. This is due to factors such as an overall lack of accountability, capacity constraints and capability deficits.
Across all three spheres of government and state-owned enterprises, the organs of state continue to operate within an over-centralised, hierarchical and rule-bound eco-system inherited from a previous dispensation, and therefore it is difficult to hold specific individuals or entities accountable. The unintended consequences of the accountability challenge are:
- Ineffectual decision-making
- An input-based rather than output-based focus
- ‘Value for money’ is encouraged through a system that in itself is vastly ineffective and uneconomical
- Innovation and creativity are impeded
- Uniformity is prioritised above effectiveness and responsiveness
- Capacity constraints and capability deficits exist in unison with accountability. The quality of service delivery is at a clear disconnect and taxpayer funds are being squandered in the following ways:
- The implementation of service delivery improvement programmes and continuous management changes are done in isolation.
- The public sector work environment is not underpinned by an ethos of ‘servants for the citizens of the country’.
- Improvements in service delivery are viewed as an administrative activity rather than a dynamic process, with improvements being driven through the issuance of circulars rather than through enabled bodies.
- Current management tools are inadequate insofar as they relate to daily performance monitoring.
- Continuous development and learning is not prioritised and/or is seen as a compliance exercise rather than as a critical driver to building and sustaining a capable and competent workforce.
- The notion of capacity is driven by the placement of ‘warm bodies’ in available positions rather than the alignment of skills with a relevant job description.
- Organogram structures remain outdated and misaligned to public needs.
- Institutionalised practices (policies, processes and procedures) as well as enabling systems/tools are at a disjuncture as a result of the lack of a capable and capacitated workforce.
- Useful information is not disseminated among the various bodies.
Given these challenges, government will inevitably sink in the murky depths should there be no intervention. This brings us to the bystanders in our scenario − those along the shore that are in a position to help. These bystanders comprise two key role-players within the public sector, namely professional service firms (consultants or service providers) and oversight and monitoring structures.
Professional service firms have the necessary skills and capabilities to drive sustainable transformation solutions. These institutions have the resources required to alleviate government’s challenges, so why are they not stepping forward? The answer to this question is three-fold:
Oversight and monitoring structures, as well as the public, have a negative perception of the use of professional services firms within government.
From the perspective of professional services firms, there is a perceived reputational risk.
In most instances, cumbersome internal processes stand in the way of a timeous response and therefore success.
These factors prevent professional services firms from pursuing work opportunities in the public sector space, and thus a critical role-player is rendered ineffectual.
Oversight and monitoring structures constitute another role-player in the current public sector predicament. Instead of intervening by advocating the use of consultants and addressing the challenges within government, these structures choose to err on the side of caution and merely keep government afloat through encouragement from afar.
Despite the need for intervention and although they are able to act, these role-players have no responsibility to act. This forms the crux of the public sector predicament and the associated narrative in South Africa. It is clear that there is a need for change, but for such change to take place, all individuals and/or entities that are in a position to serve must recognise that they have in fact a duty to serve.
So, on whom is the onus to change the narrative? The answer is simple: on all of us.
AUTHOR | Garth Pretorius CA(SA), RA, Founder and Owner, GPA Consulting and Training
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