The National Framework towards Professionalisation of the Public Sector, adopted by Cabinet in October, is aimed at resolving the many challenges facing efforts to produce a professional, ethical, competent and capable State, which is necessary for a democratic and effective developmental State.
These views were posited by presenters and attendees during the Professionalisation Framework For Public Service: Implications For Skills seminar hosted by the University of the Witwatersrand Centre for Researching Education and Labour and the Public Service Sector Education and Training Authority on January 18.
The need to develop and inculcate an efficient, non-partisan, professional career-oriented public service body has been identified as a foundation for the country's democracy since the early 1990s, at the dawn of democracy, Tshwane University of Technology faculty of humanities executive dean and National Planning Commission member Professor Mashupye Maserumule highlighted.
"The approval of the Professionalisation Framework document is the consummation of a long journey to realise the ideal public administration. The National Development Plan (NDP), adopted by all parties in 2012, has long identified a professional public service as key to creating economic opportunities and a workforce that is capable of delivering on the demands and expectations of citizens."
With South Africa reeling from the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the global economic changes brought about by changes in technology and the energy crisis, as well as the socio-economic challenges and public discontent, the building and institutionalisation of the State's capability required to navigate the complexity has never been more urgent, Maserumule said.
Therefore, the professionalisation of the public service must not only overcome the challenges of resistance from partisan blocs, unions and civil servants to change and professionalisation, but must also envision what the future of work in the public service would look like in a digital economy and a world changed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
"As early as 1998, core principles required for a professional, ethical, effective and capable public service were identified, key among them that meritocracy must be the guiding norm for appointments and hiring practices in the public service," he said.
However, the Professionalisation Framework has also been revised, based on feedback from academics, public servants, professional organisations and civil society, to focus on what is achievable within the current context of dire economic circumstances, inequality, high unemployment and very high youth unemployment, crumbling public infrastructure and collapsing State authority, noted Public Affairs Institute (Pari) executive director and University of Johannesburg anthropology and development studies associate professor Dr Mbongiseni Buthelezi.
The framework must be realistic about what is achievable within the existing system, the context in which it was produced and the political and professional environment in which it aims to intervene [to create a professional public service], he said.
"The reality is that there is a great deal of unevenness, and there are pockets of excellence of people and institutions that we can still look to, and which must be replicated and propagated."
Pari has done a lot of work in municipalities alongside the South African Local Government Association to try to understand what does or does not work at the grassroots level. A key issue identified is that there is extremely poor performance planning and management. This is true not only in municipalities, but across the public service.
"This means the door is open to corruption and then allowing people to get away with corrupt activities because there is no one that will hold people accountable for what they should or should not be doing. Similarly, lots of power is concentrated in councils, and this is a recipe for the politisation of State levers and the prioritisation of political over professional criteria in the recruitment of public servants."
This politisation of the public service also directly contributes to factionalism, and the aim of professionalising the public service is to deal with a system that has never achieved coherence since the aspirations were articulated at the dawn of democracy, Buthelezi added.
"Further, there are no recourse mechanisms available to citizens seeking services when they experience problems with services or poor attitudes from public servants, further bleeding the authority of the State," he said.
These issues create a credibility crisis for the State and for the political leadership of the ruling alliance, which has driven South Africa to the low point it is at now.
To correct these problems and overcome the challenges facing the professionalisation of the public service requires actions beyond only the development of suitable skills within the public service, but also requires the involvement of political leaders, professional bodies and unions, and public pressure from an active citizenry, he posited.
The involvement of organisations inside and outside the State is also necessary, as the professionalisation of the public service is a very lengthy process that could exceed 20 to 30 years, while the vision of the NDP only stretches to 2030.
"The challenge that faces us is how we can find ways to ensure this project does coherent work that continues across [political] administrations over the long term. This is a big political question and there are significant headwinds this project faces, not least the national and provincial elections set to take place in 2024."
Buthelezi suggested that a dual approach be taken, including that of a top-down approach that focuses on professionalisation and the development of competence through training, skills development and induction, with timelines set, and a botttom-up approach of giving attention to bringing in new cohorts of public servants and how public servants can hold each other professionally accountable.
These two initiatives will then meet in the middle and help to overcome some of the ingrained resistance to change owing to the security of tenure of personnel and union resistance to change and the implementation of new systems and processes, as well as the inculcation of professionalism in both existing and newly appointed public servants.
Upholding pockets of excellence and making them visible to the public as examples of how public services should be conducted can also serve to bring along all people and organisations without destroying the already low morale within the public service, and instead serve as a helpful approach to find ways to nudge existing people in the direction the country and the public service processes and systems need to go, he added.
In addition to this, the public service professionalisation project must determine how to work with organisations and people outside the State, such as professional bodies and training authorities, among others, and what their roles can be in supporting professionalisation.
Similarly, public constituencies can play a role by putting pressure on public service and political leaders to carry out the objectives of the framework.
"The attitude we have seen is that civil society is viewed as the enemy of the State and the public service. However, civil society can help to amplify the voices of people and hold political leaders' feet to the fire. The Framework can serve as an advocacy tool that civil society can leverage to advocate for the necessary reforms in the public service," he said.
"We need to frame the programme [of professionalising the public service] in terms of institutionalising the humanitarian role the public service plays in South Africa, and we need to underscore the philosophy of compassion, and humane treatment of and respect for citizens within training and skills development curricula," said Maserumule.
The professionalisation of the public sector is key to ensuring that the State has in its employ qualified employees with a sense of public service and conscientiousness to carry out their public functions with an ethical disposition.
A capable, competent, professional public service is necessary to deal with the growing complexities facing South Africa, including the impact of changes to economies that will be driven by the 4IR.
"An effective State will assist to stabilise the political administration interface, which the NDP emphasises as a strategic imperative to developing a capable developmental State to serve the people of South Africa and their needs," he said.