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Destroying altars of mediocrity

September is Public Service Month in SA and President Cyril Ramaphosa has once again put the public sector in the spotlight. In his latest letter, the President commits the public sector to perform better than it is doing right now and exhorts it to step up and make a difference. It has become trite to continuously say that it would be unrealistic to expect the system that brought us to this point to suddenly change simply because of the President’s call. The Inter-Governmental Relations system places most of the development responsibilities onto local government, thus something needs to change there if we are to meet the challenges set by the president. Although many municipal administrations presently worship at the altar of mediocrity, to blame the system for this would be misplaced. Bureaucrats take their instructions from those to whom they account. Thus, the people at the top are the people who need to account for the system being mediocre. The performance management system in the public sector is at the core of public service mediocrity. The words and phrases used in setting Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are manipulated to ensure that only the most banal outputs are measured and rewarded. For example, if an official has submitted minutes of a meeting timeously, that would get and average score. If it were submitted ahead of the due date that would receive a higher score, thus contributing towards an overall score which would then assist that official in getting a performance bonus. The resolutions of the meeting being acted upon which would have made an impact on local communities are rarely considered as performance targets. There are five Key Performance Areas (KPAs) which are set by National Government. These are Service Delivery, Local Economic Development, Financial Management and Viability, Good Governance and Public Participation and Municipal Institutional Development and Transformation. These KPAs were established at the time of the first democratic local government elections in 2000 and were necessary as part of the new phase of accountable local government. Linked to KPA’s are Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) of achievements specific to each municipality and are usually linked to the performance contracts of municipal managers. In other words, when a Council appoints a Municipal Manager, developmental outcomes for that municipality are linked to an Annual Performance Plan, to which the Municipal Manager’s performance for that year is measured against. These outcomes are cascaded throughout the municipality and form the basis on which individual performance scorecards and rewards of senior officials are determined. Therefore, the performance of Senior Managers and Municipal Managers are determined by consolidating the scores of the people below them. When targets are mediocre and easily met, then performance is guaranteed even when the auditor-general and the rest of society objectively point towards institutional decline and concomitant impacts on local communities. There are three interventions, the first of which starts with National Government. Firstly, the municipal KPAs were prepared when democratic local government was nascent, for the first time the entire country had wall-to-wall municipalities and the country had never had spatially diverse municipalities before. They have become redundant because the Municipal Finance Management Act, the attendant regulations and the Municipal Systems Act have legislated a number of those KPAs as what municipalities must achieve or risk adverse audit outcomes. It was also long before the National Development Plan (NDP) was prepared. After two decades of democratic local government and the entrenchment of laws and regulations, it is the NDP which should guide the KPAs for municipalities. These should be tailored to the size, resources and location of the municipalities and their expected contributions towards the NDP. What should be considered are three KPAs. Sustainable human settlements which would incorporate housing, transport, public facilities, and infrastructure; efficient municipal management and governance through the careful use of funds, human resources, and technologies; and enhanced democratic participation and accountability. The three KPAs are related and would impact on the organisational design of municipalities and other government departments in response to their roles in the meeting the objectives of the NDP. Secondly, the performance and rewards system in the public sector should be based on impacts made rather than administrative actions taken. The extent to which integrated development in municipalities contribute towards the NDP outcomes should be measured and rewarded. This is challenging work and when officials make contributions towards sustained transformation, this should be recognised. This would impact on how the public sector performance management systems are structured. Thirdly, only qualified senior managers should be appointed. Despite the regulations to the contrary, many senior managers in municipalities remain unqualified for the positions which they occupy. Many do not understand the basics of complex budgeting, how performance targets are set and what the role of municipalities in meeting the objectives of the NDP are. Councils control the appointment of senior officials in municipalities which means the state of the council determines the quality of senior people appointed. What should be considered in addition to employment equity are suitable qualifications, independence of thought and ethical ethos. Municipalities can play a significant role in improving public sector performance but requires a change from mediocrity towards impactful performance. That starts with the Presidency because it has an important role to play in ensuring that the system steps up.