SA Today - Making the public service efficient and accountable
Helen Zille, Leader of the Democratic Alliance
5 June 2009
President Jacob Zuma made several laudable promises in his State of the Nation Address on Wednesday. One of them was that his new administration would direct public servants to "improve public services and strengthen democratic institutions". He promised to put "people first in service delivery".
But President Zuma failed to explain convincingly how his government intends to make the public service more service-oriented and accelerate service delivery.
Three points are of particular concern.
Firstly, the President neglected to mention the key requirement for an efficient public service: namely, public servants who have the necessary expertise to do their jobs and who are "fit for purpose". During my years in executive office, I have learnt that appointing the right people in the right positions is the most important determinant of good governance and service delivery.
If they are not backed up by a corps of skilled, competent and dedicated officials, democratic institutions will atrophy and the public service will cease to be an engine of delivery. Paying political debts through "cadre redeployment" to top positions, is the surest way of undermining good governance.
If President Zuma wants to make the state functional (let alone "developmental"), he must reject the policy of cadre deployment.
Under the ANC, the state has been turned into a closed, patronage-based system - used to reward and repay a cabal within the ruling party through various forms of "deployment". Loyal ANC cadres control all state institutions and serve the interests of a party faction rather than all the people. The inevitable result of this downward spiral into centralisation, cronyism and corruption is that state institutions are incapacitated, the state is criminalised, opportunities are cannibalised, and service delivery shuts down.
Improving public service means drawing a clear dividing line between party and state. Cadre deployment blurs this line because "loyal cadres" are expected to put the party's interests above the people's. Cadre deployment has also become a substitute for affirmative action. Too often, public servants are handpicked by ANC cronies under the guise of affirmative action, regardless of their skills and fitness for purpose. This is an abuse of the concept of empowerment.
Secondly, President Zuma must explain how he plans to make public servants accountable to the public they serve. It is all very well to talk about fighting corruption in the public service, as the President did, but what are the plans to achieve them?
There is a mismatch between what the ruling party says and does when it comes to corruption. Compare, for example, how the British Labour Party has dealt with its parliamentarians and Ministers caught up in the recent expense claims scandal with the way in which the ANC treats its own offenders.
So far, four members of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's cabinet have quit, and at least seven Labour MPs have said they would not seek re-election. They abused the public's trust, and there is an understanding - on the part of the individuals involved and the party itself - that they must be heavily sanctioned for their behaviour.
The ANC experiences no such pangs of conscience. In fact, the ruling party appears to promote the corrupt. That is why it chose four of its MPs implicated in the Travelgate fraud scandal to head up powerful parliamentary oversight committees. These four MPs jointly defrauded Parliament of close to R1m of taxpayers' money, yet the ANC deemed it fit to reward them with senior leadership positions in the same institution they defrauded.
This makes a mockery of President Zuma's assertion during the election campaign that "the ANC does not condone or tolerate corruption", and it casts doubt over the promise he made to fight corruption his State of the Nation Address.
Thirdly, the interventions that President Zuma did propose - more central planning and greater centralisation of powers - are bound to weaken democratic institutions and hamper the delivery of public services.
His promise to "speed up the establishment of a single Public Service" is worrying. The creation of a single public service is likely to reduce the provincial and local spheres of government to mere administrative arms of central government, which would be unconstitutional. A single public service will enable the ANC to use a centralised bureaucracy, accountable at national level, to impose its policies countrywide, even where the ANC loses elections.
This will undermine one of the cornerstones of our democracy, which is that citizens should be able to choose the policies they think are best and change their government by using their vote.
It will remove vital checks and balances on power abuse. It will disempower local and provincial governments as agents of service delivery, and it will make public servants at local government level accountable to a centralised bureaucracy rather than the residents of the municipalities they serve.
To make the public service efficient and accountable, President Zuma's government must take bold and decisive action. That means getting rid of cadre deployment, firing and punishing corrupt public servants, and empowering provincial and local governments to fulfil their service delivery functions.