South Africa

OPINIONISTA: Like pilots, public servants must return to the simulator, lest they crash-land

Crash-landing an expensive aircraft gets a pilot into serious trouble, whereas, for a public servant, losing a billion rand through irregular, unauthorised or wasteful expenditure has no consequences, even if it resulted in the death of poor citizens from abject hunger or helplessly bleeding to death in a hospital hallway.

The National School of Government (NSG) recently concluded a memorandum of understanding with the Civil Service College (CSC) of Singapore. On Monday, 10 May 2021, the NSG led a master class, which was held in partnership with the CSC under the theme: The Challenges of Governance in a Complex World — Building Bureaucracies that Think Ahead and Effectively Deliver on National Priorities.

Delivering the overall lecture, futurist and distinguished civil service leader Peter Ho unpacked perspectives on the quality of administrative leadership required to rebuild public trust with competent bureaucracies in the forefront of national development.

Having spent a year at the NSG witnessing prospects and opportunities of rebuilding state capacity in South Africa, I have had to rethink, if not revalidate, what constitutes a capable state that diligently delivers national development priorities. This reflective process coincides with an ambitious transformation project aimed at turning the NSG into a leading “simulator”, where all bureaucrats return to sharpen their knowledge and improve their skills.

President Cyril Ramaphosa noted this awakening of the NSG as a key institution for securing capability when he appeared before the Zondo Commission recently. The president said that “through the adoption of a new democratic constitutional dispensation, we established a new era of transparency, accountability, ethical conduct and respect for the rule of law… we must capacitate people and have them properly trained”. Everyone in the public service must attend courses at the NSG, the president concluded.

The input serves to reinforce the imperatives of continuous learning for leadership in government. As with the aviation sector, pilots and crew are required to return to the simulator regularly, not only as a way of deepening their expertise but also as a minimum requirement for retaining their trading/flying licence. I draw parallels with the aviation sector because there is very little room for error there.

Crash-landing an expensive aircraft gets you into serious trouble whereas losing a billion rand through irregular, unauthorised or wasteful expenditure has no consequences, even if it resulted in the death of poor citizens from abject hunger or helplessly bleeding to death in a hospital hallway.

The NSG is modelling itself to become a centre of excellence that helps public servants master statecraft. In some instances, it would offer courses that serve as a minimum requirement for entry or promotion in the public service. A current example is the Nyukela, a compulsory pre-entry course for those applying for senior management jobs.

To achieve this, we are signing local and international partnerships to build depth and expand scope while also leveraging expertise and experiences from those who have successfully transformed bureaucracies. Through partnerships like the one with the CSC of Singapore, the NSG conveys a message to public servants that it is creating optimal learning opportunities for them, informed by best practices. The NSG is also mobilising leading scholars, and distinguished senior and former public servants, to train and mentor public servants and elected officials.

The motto of the NSG, Learn Grow Serve, encapsulates the mandate of helping public servants to learn and enhance their skills and expertise to serve the public efficiently and professionally.

Therefore, I propound that South Africa requires a new generation of public servants and leaders who must be:

We learn from history that it is the Mandarins who successfully lead state reforms, driven by a vision of the future we chose. Change is not “snow in Alaska”, which is guaranteed for most parts of the year. As senior managers in the public service without vision, effort and discipline, we will join the ranks of cheque collectors while the potential of economic growth and service delivery remains stunted.

This proposition has major implications for higher education institutions as well, which should immediately review their public administration and governance courses. This will deconcentrate focus on teaching current and prospective public servants to know “the rules”, “policymaking processes” and administrative compliance (including the now popular “monitoring and evaluation”) programmes.

We should focus on building implementation capacity or what I call execution diligence. Business schools teach strategy as a critical element of the curricula, in addition to operations management, which helps students understand processes inherent in delivering products and services to the markets.

Public administration students are not necessarily exposed to strategy, operations management and the most critical skill: project management. However, this knowledge structure is missing in the public service, over and above knowing applicable laws and policy frameworks.

To achieve a delivery-oriented public service, curriculums should be reviewed to train public servants who can strategise (do scenarios and modelling), plan and diligently deliver national priorities.

As if addressing the South African public servants, Cuban revolutionary Manuel Piñeiro wrote that we need to “… increase our vigilance against complacency and arrogance — which may appear like weeds in our work and, if we don’t uproot them in time, wind up by invading everything. Let us oppose them with revolutionary unpretentiousness… Let us oppose this with the careful administration of resources, systematisation, planning, and the most intelligent use of all human and technical resources we have.”

Apart from the Framework Towards Professionalising the Civil Service that the NSG is finalising as part of formal efforts to improve the quality of public servants, we also need to open up the thinking and ideation space in order to influence each other. Great plans are a function of ideas first and effective implementation.

Necessarily, we ask: Where are the Mandarins to lead this national conversation and be pioneers in building a civil service characterised by commitment to the course of national development, diligent execution of national priorities and prudent use of resources?

We need erudite cadres who are masterful, ethical and accountable in their craft, and who are innovative and positively disposed towards adopting technology and partnering with stakeholders and experts to accelerate the creation of job opportunities and delivery of services to our people. DM

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