As long as the public service is characterised by a model where Ministers are supreme, and the Directors-General subordinate, South Africa will never have a functional government that can tackle the complex social and economic challenges that it faces today. It is possible to have a different model, the basic outlines of which are tentatively sketched out in the National Planning Commission’s newly unveiled National Development Plan: Vision for 2030.
The National Planning Commission expresses concern over the manner in which the relationship between Ministers and their Directors-General is structured, especially since ambiguities in roles undermine the proper functioning of public service. This also erodes its potential as an instrument for managing social and economic change. The National Planning Commission makes some excellent observations regarding the defects of public service leadership from municipalities to national government. It is just that its recommendations are not strong enough to ensure meaningful change in how the system runs.
Usually, when new Ministers are appointed, they feel a sense of entitlement to appoint their own Directors-General. These are oftentimes cronies who would be docile and worship their Ministers rather than professionally serve the public. Ministers revolt at the notion of inheriting a Director-General or having one imposed on them.
If Ministers were to make a choice between inheriting a proficient Director General and appointing an incompetent one, they would choose the latter. Insecurities and a deep urge to exercise control are the driving impulse in many of the tensions between Ministers and Directors-General. The last thing a Minister wants is to live in the shadows of a highly competent Director General.
What makes this situation anomalous is that Directors-General are presumably appointed on the basis of their technical and policy competence, whereas Ministers occupy their positions purely at the discretion of the President irrespective of competence. They are here today, gone tomorrow. Despite their technical and policy superiority, Directors-General are constrained by a system that elevates the status of Ministers and rewards political affiliation and mediocrity.
This model is clearly lopsided, and it bleeds the taxpayer. When Ministers don’t like a Director-General, they would simply pay out the remainder of the contract. Perversely, this incentivises the Directors-General to drag out their differences with Ministers so that they can then receive the guaranteed golden handshake, gratis.
In trying to resolve this tension, the National Planning Commission proposes that Directors-General should have two reporting lines. The first would assume the form of administrative reporting to a senior public servant – some kind of a super Director-General; and the second, on policy matters, would require the Director General to report to the Minister. This is a right step, albeit, in a wrong direction. It is not clear why the National Planning Commission decided to go for such a complicated route.
Framed in this way, it makes it impossible for Directors-General to get anything done. Role confusions and misunderstandings are likely to abound, and with Directors-General spending most of their time doing reporting rather than getting on with the job of managing government departments and improving public service efficiencies.
The National Planning Commission should have instead structured its proposed model around making the public service more efficient and effective by giving more authority to the Directors-General. They have a superior policy and technical judgement than the Ministers. A model where Directors-General are superior or equivalent in authority to the Ministers characterised much of Japan’s bureaucracy at the height of its developmental state trajectory. The Japanese bureaucrats had massive influence over policy formulation, were respected by the Diet (Parliament), and executed policy with confidence and great precision.
It is no secret that in South Africa, Ministers occupy their position not so much on the basis of their leadership capabilities or policy acumen, but largely on the back of factional support and presidential patronage. Without such a patronage, most Ministers would be unemployable in the labour market.
At best they would seamlessly blend with the pool of workers that are part of government’s Expanded Public Works Programme, or become beneficiaries of the welfare system. Thus It does not make sense that a Director-General who does most of the heavy policy and intellectual lifting should report to a Minister who bolted out of nowhere, and with no leadership or managerial credibility other than a party membership.
Yet the National Planning Commission fudges it. It has instead chosen to re-affirm the superiority of Ministers above that of Directors-General. The role of the Ministers in government departments should be that of supporting their Directors-General politically, and ensuring that the party political vision and electoral priorities are intact.
Further, they should interface directly with the public explaining how their departments are performing in delivering on commitments made during elections. This is different to saying that the Directors-General should report to Ministers on policy issues, as the National Planning Commission recommends.
It is often forgotten that the Latin root meaning for minister, simply stated, is servant or attendant. In South Africa it has prima donna celebrity connotations. Disconcertingly, this elevation of political affiliation over technical competence is increasingly exported to South Africa’s diplomatic missions abroad.
There is a fast growing trend in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation where diplomatic missions abroad are being transformed into a massive patronage network and a cushion for failed politicians from Mayors to Cabinet Ministers. Just over 70 percent of South Africa’s diplomatic missions abroad are headed by politicians, and just under 30 percent by properly trained career diplomats.
It is not difficult to discern what is at play here: this system is intended to reward political loyalty, and to create an income stream for cronies who would otherwise be jobless. It thus enables them to enjoy a sumptuous lifestyle, with chauffeur-driven cars, and access to massive allowances abroad. Wittingly or unwittingly this creates a two-tier welfare system – an elite one for failed politicians and cronies; and a miserly one for the underclasses. Both are sustained by the tax payer.
The disproportionate representation of politicians in diplomatic service communicates a powerful message that competent civil servants and career diplomats are not valued and have little contribution to make in executing South Africa’s foreign policy abroad. This will not only undermine South Africa’s place in the world, but runs the risk of deepening dysfunctionality in the public service.
If the ruling party is serious about building the capabilities of the state, delivering services efficiently, and enhancing the value of the country’s diplomatic missions abroad, it will need to overhaul the existing template. The first step should be an immediate phasing out of the political deployment culture and practice, as the National Planning Commission recommends. The roles of the Minister and that of the Directors-General should be equal in status, with a super Director-General to whom other DGs report. This will certainly require a change of perspective about public service leadership and about the urgency of fixing South Africa.