SA needs accountability to citizens

As “public service month” drags unnoticed to its dismal close, the post-apartheid state bureaucracy remains troubled. The strain on the fiscus imposed by 2-million public service and parastatal employees is widely remarked.

But public sector unions are powerful, the public service is a key driver of the creation of a black middle class, and pay or employment freezes antagonise key frontline workers. The government probably has to focus on improving public servants’ performance rather than on reducing their number.

The post-apartheid bureaucracy was built on the twin foundations of a white supremacist state and a set of corrupt and tribalist Bantustan bureaucracies. Little wonder it is not working well. Efforts to improve performance have enjoyed only partial success.

The public service code of conduct extols virtue but provides little disincentive to vice. Recently amended public service regulations have not stopped public servants’ private companies from doing business with the state.

Since 1994, the governing ANC has placed too much faith in accountability mechanisms within the state: cadre-bureaucrats keeping an eye on other cadre-bureaucrats. This has largely failed. Alongside these top-down instruments of control, government has insisted that the “batho pele” principles introduced by president Nelson Mandela in 1997 should continue to guide the conduct of SA’s public servants.

Batho pele (“people first”) ostensibly instils favourable dispositions in officials: they must consult with citizens, treat them courteously, provide accurate information, operate openly and transparently, pursue high standards, and secure value for money.

Incoming President Cyril Ramaphosa granted fresh life to this wishful thinking in his February state of the nation address, when he enjoined civil servants to “put our people first”.

Sentimentalists now enjoin government employees to “care”. Hence public service month has laboured under a theme of multifaceted implausibility: “Thuma Mina — Taking Public Service to the People: Batho Pele: We Belong, We Care, We Serve.” Rather than celebrating the 21st birthday of batho pele next month, the government should ditch it and put in its place a combination of hard skills development and citizen accountability.

We need analytically accomplished graduates, many of them engineers and scientists, at the top of the service, in career paths that are prestigious and well remunerated. A back-to-basics approach to municipal appointments in engineering and finance departments should be complemented by schemes to train personnel. Above all, what the public service needs is more exposure to people power.

State-centred accountability mechanisms work poorly on their own. Ordinary people are often those best placed to judge what has gone wrong. Citizens should be told how nurses, teachers and municipal officials are legally obliged to act. They should also be informed how local schools, clinics and municipal offices actually perform. In public “league tables”, data about the performance of almost all public agencies can be made available to citizen users.

Cellphone apps can meanwhile help citizens to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with public services in real time.

Citizen scorecards are relatively cheap to set up and can be adapted for use in schools, clinics and government offices. They can be designed to ring alarm bells in management before citizens turn to violence. They can also place immediate pressure on underperforming or corrupt government officials.

SA is a democracy and it does not need an army of spies to oversee citizen grievances, identify antiparty agitators or arrest dissenters. Nevertheless, no state can afford to trust government officials to regulate their own behaviour.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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