The reality of professionalising the public service: CESA webinar addresses the tough questions

The reality of professionalising the public service: CESA webinar addresses the tough questions

31 March 2021. Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA) recently hosted the third instalment of their Protecting Lives and Livelihoods webinar series. The series aims to highlight the importance of quality infrastructure for South Africa’s social and economic development. On 26 March, panellists discussed whether professionalising the state would lead to improved service delivery, and what value the private sector could add.

The webinar was facilitated by Nombulelo Manyana, Editor: Water & Sanitation Africa, and featured the following speakers:

  • Naomi Naidoo, Pink Africa and CESA Board Member.
  • Florencia Belvedere, Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI)
  • Dr Mathetha Mokonyama, CSIR
  • Lindiwe Ndlela, Government Technical Advisory Centre (GTAC)

Naidoo began by contemplating what it would look like if South Africa’s infrastructure budget were used effectively. “The first thing that comes to mind is no loadshedding or water restrictions. However, the wider picture includes proper water and sanitation for all communities, well-maintained roads, adequate schools, homes, and healthcare facilities. However, we are far from that picture. What would it take to get there?” She said the problem was not truly about funding, as the most recent Auditor General’s report highlighted that the challenges reported by municipalities include procedural and technical issues, and were not necessarily budget-related. Naidoo highlighted the multiple role-players who are involved in infrastructure delivery, noting that everyone involved needs to play their part. While it is up to the state to plan appropriately, consulting engineers can provide innovative and sustainable solutions. “The issues stated in the AG’s report clearly show that local government needs help from highly-skilled professionals, which the private sector can offer,” she said. A live poll of the audience uncovered that 70% felt that the reality of SA’s infrastructure is failing, with 9% saying it is satisfactory, and 20% voting for “improving”.

Agreeing with Naidoo, Belvedere said that professionalising of the public service is important, as well as insulating the public service from political interference. “Public servants need to be hired based on their merit, qualifications, and experience – and not based on their political connections.” She further highlighted the importance of going beyond skills development, to look at the integrity of the workforce. “Performance management and consequence management seem to have been left out of the current plans for professionalisation. These plans need to take into consideration the expectations of not only performance but also accountability.” She cited the massive government salary bill of R4.5-billion spent since 2019 on the salaries of suspended public servants, both national and provincial. “This is an issue we cannot afford, and we need to take these processes further,” she said. She criticised the professionalisation implementation plan for being largely aspirational, with no real roadmap for when certain milestones will be achieved. Finally, she raised concerns over the recruitment of the Head of Public Service who needs to be an example of professional public service, but may be appointed for political reasons rather than on suitability for the role.

Dr Mokonyama spoke next about the public service environment. As a civil engineer, he has had experience working in both the public and private sectors. “I was very fortunate to have great leaders – and mentors – when I was doing municipal work. I was told that my mentor would always have time for me, and I knew that I would offer the same one day to my mentees. There was a spirit of good leadership. When I contrast that to what we are seeing today in the public sector, it is a very different landscape, and it does not encourage engineers to work for the government.” He cited the complex rules and bureaucracy as inhibiting the attraction of skilled professionals to the state. Further, the lack of technology and innovation in state departments means that engineers would not be able to operate in their desired environment. “A study was done on what motivates engineering students to study engineering, and a core finding was that they wanted to create innovative solutions based on science and mathematics. That is what drives them, but the public sector has become a working environment driven by rules, and the fear of making mistakes.” He said that there is no sense of problem-solving, and no sense of leadership.

A poll of webinar attendees asked where they thought the weakest link was in the engineering skills pipeline, with 10% voting “school”, 4% voting “university”, 10% voting “professional registration”, 58% voting “procurement of engineering services”, and 17% voting for “performance monitoring”. Dr Mokonyama agreed that universities are doing a fair job of creating skilled graduates, but there is a lack of opportunities for these graduates as large infrastructure projects are sparse.

Finally, Ndlela joined the line up to inform attendees of the Government Technical Advisory Centre’s (GTAC’s) role in the professionalisation of public service. GTAC is an agency of the National Treasury, established to support public finance management through professional advisory services, programme and project management and transaction support. GTAC promotes public sector capacity building through partnerships with academic and research institutions, civil society and business organisations.

“We focus on pooling skills which are too scarce to be made available to government departments on a full-time basis, or skills needed for a fixed term. For example, if you look at the multidisciplinary group of individuals needed for an infrastructure project, it wouldn’t be efficient to hire all these skills on a full-time basis. We pool these skills and offer them to departments as and when they are required.” GTAC also supports public-private partnerships by facilitating the partnership and protecting public interests throughout the project.

A poll of the audience asked how they would rate the partnership between academic institutions and various industry bodies in the public sector. Just 4% voted “very good”, with 20% voting “satisfactory” and the remaining 76% voting for “Needs improvement”. Ndlela agreed that improvement is necessary. “It seems that South Africa is not good at collaboration. And when you consider the need for professionalisation, collaboration is vital. We have a unit dedicated to creating partnerships, so that things are already organised when they need to be leveraged. Government, civil society and the private sector need to be open to partnership and collaboration. However, government is holding the ball and needs to open itself up for help.”

The webinar closed with a panel discussion and Q&A session. It was said that government must hold employees accountable and establish a standard. However, there was mention that while consequence management is important, it needs to be directed at people who are doing the wrong things, not at people who are blowing the whistle on misconduct. In addition, it was mentioned that making mistakes is part of learning, and so good and just leaders are required in order to appropriately guide the public workforce. These leaders can help establish the balance between working to a higher standard, while leaving room for learning. Panellists agreed that improving the public sector working environment would go a long way towards creating a more professional state and unlocking the positive knock-on effects.

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