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"Service" needs to return to public service
2010-09-14

At the memorial lecture were, from the left, front: Chris Hendriks, Proff. Liezel Lues, Chris Thornhill and Lyndon du Plessis; middle: Prof. Hendri Kroukamp, Mss Alet Fouche, Lizette Pretorius; and back: Proff. Koos Bekker and Moses Sindane.
– Photo: Stephen Collett.

There is a serious need for the concept of “service” to be reintroduced to the public service. In addition to this, public servants need to behave ethically and honestly if the public service were to achieve its main aim of service delivery to South African citizens and thereby also restore the trust of citizens in the state.

This was the central theme of the JN Boshoff Commemorative Lecture hosted by the Department of Public Administration and Management at the University of the Free State UFS). The lecture by Prof. Chris Thornhill, emeritus professor of Public Administration and Management at the University of Pretoria, focused on “Administrative and Governmental Challenges: Lessons from the Past”. He drew pertinent parallels with the administrative and governmental practices during the times of Pres. JN Boshoff, second president of the Orange Free State in 1855, and the challenges faced in this regard by the current government and public service.

Prof. Thornhill highlighted important aspects such as globalisation, the environment, public service and democratic government in his presentation.
He said the borders between countries have all but vanished and governments therefore have to carefully consider the effects of globalisation on its domestic affairs. The strength of a country’s currency, for example, was not only determined by how that country viewed or perceived it, but also by the international community’s perception of that country’s political and economic stability. This, in turn, could have serious implications for that country’s investment and economic prospects.

Governments are compelled to attend to the utilisation of its natural resources as these resources are finite and therefore irreplaceable. Policy interventions have to be introduced to decrease or regulate the use of certain natural resources or alternative measures need to be introduced. The example of bio-fuel production in various countries was highlighted.

He said the South African public service is characterised by three debilitating factors, namely the prevalence of corruption, the interference of politicians in administrative functions and a lack of appropriate skills and therefore a lack of commitment on the part of officials. In the municipal sector, for example, 46% of municipal managers have less than one year’s experience and this mainly occurs because of the practice of deployment (the appointment of a person based on political affiliation). An amendment to the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act is currently under consideration, in terms of which municipal managers will be disallowed to hold party political positions simultaneously.

According to Prof. Thornhill this is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to neutralise the impact of these debilitating factors in order to restore the credibility of the public service.

On democratic government Prof. Thornhill said the fact that the majority of a country’s citizens elect a political party to power does not automatically make the government capable of governing effectively and efficiently. It is therefore important for the rulers to understand their governing role within a democratic context, but more importantly to act accordingly. It is also important not to centralise power unduly as this could be a serious threat to accountable government. The 17th amendment to the Constitution, 1996, currently under consideration, and in terms of which national and provincial government will be allowed to intervene in local government matters, was highlighted as a case in point.

Prof. Thornhill said it was essential for those involved to sincerely and honestly and ethically deal with the above matters for the public service to overcome current challenges.
 

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