Opinion Piece: Why reports of a bloated public service are misleading

Thursday, July 31, 2014
Amukelani Chauke

Ever since President Jacob Zuma announced the creation of new ministries in May, a lot of commentary has emerged through media reports seemingly suggesting that increasing the size of the Cabinet has resulted in a “bloated” public service.

Some of the commentary put a price tag on the new cabinet and words like “exorbitant” and “unaffordable” were thrown around.  Others drew a comparison between South Africa, a developing state, and developed countries where ministers are tasked with running more than one portfolio. 

They argued that South Africa, as in developed countries, should have one Minister looking after more than one portfolio.

The “experts” expressed a view that government needed to decrease the number of portfolios instead of increasing them. Their argument is that convergence and much more streamlining would help the country move to a much more effective governance.

In an ideal world, the commentary appears to be constructive. Most of it borders on concerns that government raised previously – that an increasing wage bill was of concern in that revenue collection was lower than expected in recent years.

But is this narrative well thought-out?

Readers in various platforms – from newspapers to the social media space – were served with one-sided screaming twitter headlines that could simply not be backed by hard facts or logical arguments.

I am tempted to say readers were duped into paying for a plate of a 500 grams T-bone steak with fries, and were only given a plate full of fries.

The arguments lacked meat. 

If one puts a microscope over the fine print, one will see commentary that lacked logic, vision and a clear understanding of what the National Development Plan (NDP) seeks to achieve.

In May, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) announced that the seasonally adjusted Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at market prices slumped at an annualised rate of 0.6% for the first quarter of 2014.

President Zuma subsequently mentioned that the current administration aimed to grow the economy to a rate of 5% by 2019, a target that will require robust and well thought-out decisions by government leaders.

When it comes to transforming the economy, those who are charged with running the country cannot afford to sit back and play it safe while the country is burning.

Difficult decisions need to be taken to ensure that the country does not miss the bus to prosperity – a path that the NDP has mapped out for South Africa.

The NDP sets out ambitious goals for poverty reduction, economic growth, economic transformation and job creation through planning that must be aligned to government priorities.

And to reach these goals, government must invest in human resources for the job to get done. This would be done through recruiting and developing skilled employees into the public service.

However, government is mindful of the concerns that have been raised and splashed across various media when it comes to decisions that affect the public purse, and Public Service and Administration Minister Collins Chabane’s response to the media reports that followed the creation of new Ministries was a correct one.

The announcement comes at the back of media reports that compared the quality of service delivery versus what is perceived to be a bloated public service.

Prior to tabling his Budget Vote in Parliament, the minister announced that his department, in partnership with National Treasury and the Presidency, had formed a task team to deal with the establishment of the new ministries.

Minister Chabane said his department will do its best to ensure that the new Ministries are well resourced in an accountable manner.

These were Chabane’s words when he announced the establishment of the task team: “For this reason, where applicable, we will consider identifying and transferring various units doing related work – and currently existing in other departments – to the newly established departments.

“However, where certain professional skills and experience are required, we will create the necessary space for departments to source in high quality people to fill those posts.”

The minister also said doing so will ensure that the public purse is spent on actual service delivery instead of increasing the wage bill.

The NDP prescribes a list of interventions to help the economy grow and to create jobs.

One of these is what President Zuma alluded to in his State-of-the-Nation-Address in June, when he said a series of engagements would take place with the business sector to ensure that government tackles obstacles that hinder development of the small business sector.

According to the NDP, about 90% of jobs will be created through small and emerging companies by the year 2030.

For this to happen, bold and radical decisions are required and the President therefore made a progressive decision to announce the creation of the Small Business Development Ministry.

With a bulk of jobs expected to come from this sector, it makes perfect sense to have a Ministry that will focus on this aspect of the economy to ensure that support is provided to the small business sector.  

The Ministry will not only focus on rolling out one-stop shops or centres where entrepreneurs can register their businesses under one roof, it would ensure that small and emerging businesses are assisted to be sustainable going forward.

To raise the low levels of entrepreneurship activity in the country, it’s imperative that a department dedicated to this sector is created.

The benefits or gains the country stand to get from this far outweighs the financial resources that will be put into setting up this new ministry.

The Task Team that Minister Chabane appointed will then ensure that recruitment of employees is done in a responsible and accountable manner.

In this regard, some of the functions of the Small Business Development Department will be transferred from the Trade and Industry Department.

The two departments, the Minister said, will – going forward – work closely with the Department of Economic Development as there continues to be synergy between the three departments.  

The same goes for other new portfolios, like the splitting of the Water and Environmental Affairs Ministry into two.

This ensures that Minister Nomvula Mokonyane prioritises the delivery of water and sanitation as it is a basic, non-negotiable human right, while Minister Edna Molewa can dedicate all her attention to ensuring that our environment is well looked after and protected.

In months leading to the May 7 polls, service delivery protests started spreading in several communities over complaints related to water supply.

The protests escalated to grave concerns when lives were lost during the protest over water, and dedicating a Ministry to this will see water infrastructure projects receiving the full attention by the department. This too will require additional human resources.

Mokonyane has already announced interventions in municipalities like Madibeng, Ngaka Modiri Molema and Lekwe Teemane, areas that have been identified for early intervention.

In her budget speech, she gave an indication that she had hit the ground running in resolving water issues in this and other areas around the country.

Already, Minister Molewa has announced that her department will now have enough capacity to be an appeals body for all mining authorisations that directly impact on the environment.

It also gives her ministry time to focus on the blue economy and to tap into the wealth that the country can make from the ocean economic sectors like the marine services.

These are but some of the many examples of how channelling sufficient resources can make  departments more effective in a role it has to play in realising developmental goals of the NDP.

No stop-gap measures will lead the country out of the current economic situation if a government does not invest in human capital.

Those in government must be continuously questioned and criticised to be kept in check, but such criticism must be constructive.

But unfortunately, these reports, and the commentary that accompanies them, bordered on mischief, as Minister Chabane rightly said. – Amukelani Chauke is a freelance journalist writing for SAnews.gov.za . This is his opinion.