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Civil servants not trained for SA’s needs

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OPINION: The problem facing South Africa is that the training of current and future civil servants is not delivering what the country needs.

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By Mashupye Maserumule, Busani Ngcaweni and Robert Nkuna

MANY analysts blame state capture – the corruption of the management of public affairs – for weakening state capacity in South Africa. A judicial commission of inquiry into the problem laid it bare.

They say the Covid pandemic worsened the situation as public resources were redirected from developmental commitments to address the emergency. The claim has merit. But it ignores the role played by a public administration education that is not fit for purpose. The universities responsible for producing the human capital needed for building state capacity must shoulder much of the blame.

Our experience in public administration in academia and government spans decades. We have wrestled with the question of why, after various policy and administrative reforms in post-colonial Africa, state capability continues to be a challenge for many countries.

The biggest problem facing South Africa is that the training of current and future civil servants is not delivering what the country needs. That’s because the training:

• Lacks the interdisciplinary approach needed to meet the country’s complex challenges.

• Fails to grasp that technology will play a far greater role in the future.

• Remains trapped in colonial theorisations.

We say this taking our cue from business administration education.

After the 2008 global financial meltdown, British journalist Philip Delves Broughton argued some Harvard-trained MBA graduates had played a leading role in creating the crisis.

The dean of the Harvard Business School subsequently called for “great introspection”. Harvard’s courage in dealing with the question of its business education is an inspiring lesson on how to confront the flaws of teaching for other fields.

Likewise, almost 15 years later, the South African Association of Public Administration and Management raised the issue of public administration education at its recent 22nd Annual Conference. It asked: What do the schools and departments of public administration in South Africa teach?

This is important because the quality of available talent determines what the state is capable of.

If public administration education is designed and delivered poorly, it sets a course for the systematic destruction of state capability. In many ways, this is what’s happening in South Africa.

Our analyses indicate that much of what is taught in public administration is not what the country needs to become a capable and developmental state. The discipline is tangled in its own “self-interpretive closet”. This is despite the trend towards interdisciplinarity, where ideas and methods from different fields of study enrich each other to make sense of societal complexities and find solutions.

Public administration education does not appreciate the imperative of socio-economic transformation for social and ecological justice, or the role of technology. It remains trapped in colonial teaching about systems and processes.

The “grand narrative fiction”, to borrow New Mexico State University professor David Boje’s phrase, that shaped curriculum development is that government should be run like a business. This is contrary to the constitutional principle that public administration must have a developmental orientation.

In the 1980s, “New Public Management” become a staple diet pushed down the throats of students of public administration. It emphasised the economic value of efficiency and maximisation of output with minimum input costs. The citizens are customers.

The falsehood that government is like a business opened the way to governance by consultants. This, despite the notoriety of “corporate consigliere(s)” (trusted advisers) deluding managers with management gibberish and glossy charts while gorging on fat fees. They hollowed out the capacity of the state. All this occurred because of the void in the teaching of public administration.

The teaching of public administration must respond innovatively to the task of building a capable and developmental state. This may lie in forging strategic partnerships between academia, professional associations and government. It must aim to improve the talent pipeline for the state.

Universities are the citadel of originating ideas. Professional associations exist to inculcate a culture of professionalism that many lament is lacking in the management of state affairs.

Any effort towards human capital formation start by creating an opportunity for these partnerships to evolve. Universities must shake off their autonomous posture and “ivory towering”.

The government must outgrow its suspicion of universities and embrace evidence-driven policy practices.

Professional associations in the public sector should understand they exist to pursue the public interest, not create an elite class in the bureaucracy.

For too long, collaborative efforts in the teaching of public administration have been a cursory pursuit bereft of strategic intent. This needs to change. They must be institutionalised.

The partnership we are calling for is not only for training interventions. It is also for re-imagining public administration education to be relevant to what the country needs. | The Conversation

* Maserumule is Professor of Public Affairs, Tshwane University of Technology. Ngcaweni is visiting Adjunct Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and Nkuna is Professor of Practice, North-West University.

– THE CONVERSATION

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