President Zuma shares his views on the public service

Monday, May 9, 2011

With 1,3million reporting to him and a budget of just under R1-trillion to spread over 50million citizens, the man at the helm of the public service has clear and exacting expectations of his Persal troops. President Jacob Zuma shares his views with Public Sector Manager Magazine.

It's the day after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan presented the Budget in Parliament.

At the President's official residence in Cape Town, Genadendal (valley of mercy), very little mercy is to be divined from his hectic schedule.

Since the Budget 24 hours earlier, he's been back to Gauteng for engagements including the opening of the Tripartite Alliance Summit and has returned to the legislative capital to meet his Finnish counterpart at Genadendal this evening.

It's a punishing schedule, but not enough to impair the President's focus on the only tool he has to ensure that the country succeeds: the public service of 1,3million.

In the gloom of an overcast afternoon, the President settles into a wingback chair in a reception lounge delicately lit by energy-saving lamps - a token that illuminates the Presidency's leadership by example - and featuring an antique dinner service.

In the 17th year of democracy, the trappings of the colonial era sit unperturbed alongside the gadgetry of the 21st century: a plasma screen tuned into Al Jazeera's accounts of the uprisings of the day along Africa's Mediterranean coast.

For a precious half-hour, though, the President is able to shut out the troubles of the troubled world to reflect - a few days after delivering the State of the Nation Address - on the State of the Public Service.

His own life and career has been that of public service: to the people of KwaZulu-Natal, originally; the liberation movement and the country at large, as Deputy President and, since 2009, President. Given South Africa's role on the Continent as well as on the international stage, President Zuma has, in one way or capacity or the other, served numerous peoples around the world in various circumstances.

So, what does public service mean to him personally?

"It offers an opportunity for us as individuals to serve the people. I really am very passionate about it. It has been my passion to serve the people all the time. To be given the opportunity to be in government, to serve the people at the level at which I do, is an honour - a humbling experience."

The President wishes more public servants would look at work - and life - this way: "One is given an opportunity to contribute to changing the quality of life of our people. If you weren't in the public service, you could have the capacity and the means, but you'd be doing it more in the quiet. Here, you are given the opportunity to serve the people."

His assessment of the State of the Public Service is that while the culture is shifting, the public service remains "something rather heavy; a cumbersome machinery".

"There's bureaucracy in the public service. It's been my concern that we need to change that culture, do things differently, do things quicker than the civil service does things.

"That's what I hope we can achieve. We must be user-friendly. We need to change the culture and therefore perception about the public service."
President Zuma is anxious that failure to speed up, modernise and innovate will leave government and the country stuck in the Parable of the Two Loaves of Bread.

It is an analogy that the President has shared in two interactions with the Forum of South African Directors-General since assuming office.

"If you come to a corner shop and there are two identical loaves of bread from the same bakery, but the owner of the shop says 'this (one) loaf is a government loaf, and the other is from the private sector', which one would you buy?"

The President foresees that, in the context of his parable, many South Africans would, on the basis of experience or perception associated with aspects of the public service, opt for the private-sector loaf.

The President places his finger on the problem and prescribes the way ahead: "Our buildings are a little tired. Civil servants are walking very slowly in the corridors. Put them in the private sector, and that same person walks much faster. We need to change the culture, (our) appearance and the manner in which we work."

This new manner, he suggests, is one that takes all of us back to basics.
"We need a public service that's user-friendly, that puts people first. We need to put into practice our slogan, Batho Pele. People must feel more encouraged to come to the public service for help. I have been communicating that message. The response to problems needs to be quicker."

In 2011 - a year of job creation - the President believes that transformation of the public service ethos is an urgent priority.

"I want to bring in a sense of urgency. I established a Performance Monitoring and Evaluation (and Administration) Department. People need to appreciate what this means. It means that the department is a driver, that all of us in government need to look at our performance.

"In no time, we are ready to know is working and who is not. To me, that department is very crucial to enforce the culture of doing things differently."
Some do things so differently, that they bring government into disrepute and disappoint citizens and the President alike.

President Zuma feels personally let down when a public servant steps out of or across the line of ethical and professional rectitude. "I feel disappointed. I feel bad about it. It doesn't give a good name to government and the civil service. Why do these things?"

Given the President's strength of feeling on those who get it wrong, it is fairly simple to earn his approval: "There are people who are working very hard, who are innovative, and who don't sleep. They make me feel very proud about the civil service; people who are very concerned about their work, who want to deliver. They have ideas and if you give them work, they do the work."

For public sector managers, "doing the work" is a fine balance between the administrative rigours and routines of compliance and accountability, on the one hand, and making a difference in citizens' lives, on the other.

The President is keenly aware of this balancing act.

"The challenge facing managers in the public service is that of function and compliance. Government is about serving the people. It is good to be intact and proper, but you must be able, at Outcome level, to show you are doing something for the people, for the country."

On the eve of local government elections, all manner of candidates are volunteering themselves to do something "for the people, for the country", while many more South Africans are rehearsing where to make their mark on the ballot paper.

Given the various iterations of turnaround strategies and intermittent interventions that government to which government has resorted since 1994 to improve the coalface of services, the President has advice for both candidate and voter.

"Those who are considering the people who must take up positions as mayors or councillors must first ask themselves: why do we need this person in a political position?

"You need a political officebearer who must help government function and deliver. (Your choice) must be informed by your understanding of why you need this person.

"Equally, the person who's keen to stand for position must appreciate why that position is there and what is expected. The person must be honest and ask, 'am I qualified, capable to do this job? Unfortunately, it doesn't always go that way. A person wants to be a boss but doesn't appreciate the task they need to perform. In some cases this is exactly what undermines the capacity of the civil service."

Having catalogued his apprehensions, the President turns to his call to action for the public service, summed up in four letters: JOBS.

"All of us must work towards using every opportunity to create jobs. We have to be innovative and every open. I have said there should be (unfilled) vacancies in the civil service. We are going to monitor that."

With the Finns headed for Genadendal, the President begins to wrap up the discussion with the job-creation example of developing dairy farming in rural areas: "Once you are able to provide jobs to those who aren't highly qualified, you give them an opportunity to put something on the table, send children to school; (you are) empowering the citizens of this country.

"If you empower yourself with education, you are better placed to make a contribution to society.

"Let us be innovative, create jobs as much as possible. Let's have everyone doing something."

The President himself has something to do: meet the Finnish President in an adjacent lounge.

In an age of connectedness, this is public service without borders.