Government officials spend about 80% of their time on meetings. Reducing this will improve efficiency

2019-03-15 01:18

The size and shape of government is in the spotlight again.

The proposal to reduce the number of public servants has rattled labour unions; and the suggestion of halving cabinet has left political parties animated.

However, these proposals only scratch the surface. They are good for sound bites, yet not substantive enough to bring real change to how the government works.

The debate could not have taken place at a better time. The elections are on the horizon and this is an opportunity for political parties to make proposals on the kind of government they would institute should they be elected into office.

At the centre of the discourse is the ever-increasing public service salary bill, estimated to be 35.2% of total government expenditure last year.

The second concern is the rate of corruption that has become rife in the public sector.

Both are serious because they compromise service delivery. A government’s budget that is too skewed towards salaries means a reduction in the allocation for the provision of services. Equally, money stolen through corruption is investment lost to public services.

The sentiment is that the public service is bloated and its size has not translated into improvement in government efficiency.

It is believed efficiency has been compromised by the failure of the government to attract and retain requisite critical skills. But this is not entirely true. There are many highly qualified, skilled and well-paid professionals across the government.

The question that has not been explored adequately is whether the government is getting value from its workforce.

To measure this value, we need to consider the rate of productivity and the amount of time employees spend doing the work for which they are employed.

Measuring productivity in the public service is a daunting task because there is not much that is tangible. Skills and time are the assets workers sell to employers.

The amount of time employees spend doing the work can be used to measure the value that the government gets from its employees and the skills set can justify the remuneration employees receive.

However, too many highly skilled employees are not used effectively, spending much of their time attending meetings instead of doing the actual work.

Yet when jobs are advertised they require relevant qualifications and experience in the actual work.

The misalignment between the skills required and the work people do is getting worse.

Hence we need an overhaul to improve government efficiencies. Such an overhaul should begin by deploying people with relevant skills in appropriate positions and optimising these skills to derive real value.

The majority of senior managers spend most of their time in offices writing reports, moving from one meeting to the next, with little or no time spent at the site where developmental projects are implemented.

Most of these are full-day meetings, making it impossible for senior employees to do any work on the day of the meeting.

Cumulatively, the amount of time spent preparing for and attending the meetings eats away at the time spent on the job.

Ask any senior government officials – at local, provincial and national government level – how much time they spend in meetings.

Many would say more than 80%.

This should not be misconstrued to suggest that meetings are not important; they provide opportunities for information sharing and are a crucial platform for accountability.

It should be noted that the senior managers who attend these meetings don’t come cheap.

Consider, for example, that a director in a metropolitan municipality can earn between R985 000 and R1.4 million, a group head between R1.272 million and R1.9 million and executive directors earn between R2 million and R2.8 million a year.

Essentially, this means government is paying senior managers for attending meetings and getting very little value for the time spent doing the actual work.

It is the government’s wont to outsource most of its services, while its employees do project management work, essentially supervising the work of service providers.

More worrying is that the project management work is not properly done. Most government projects are not completed on time and many are not completed within budget.

An example is the Giyani water project which started with a budget of R502 million in 2014 and is now estimated to have cost R3.5 billion.

What makes it worse is that the project is still incomplete and the people of Giyani have yet to see a drop of water from this project.

This is a clear case of corruption and poor project management. The reality is that this project is not an exception. There are many similar projects.

But the modus operandi of the government of over-reliance in meetings is not the fault of senior managers.

This is a fundamental problem that is not unique to any one sphere of government. It is a government-wide problem. It is structured and it is how it operates.

Hence we need an overhaul to improve government efficiencies. Such an overhaul should begin by deploying people with relevant skills in appropriate positions and optimising these skills to derive real value.

Next should be the reduction of red tape and bureaucracy that delays the implementation of development projects. This should translate to fewer meetings, freeing up senior managers to have enough time to do actual work.

But this must not be done at the expense of accountability. A good balance to enforce accountability while giving employees time to do the work must be found.

We must optimise the opportunities of the digital age to expedite turnaround times, and automate systems and processes to improve efficiencies.

The challenge of employee absenteeism also needs to be addressed. Most cases stem from the abuse of sick leave. This calls for the cultivation of a culture of professionalism and work ethic in the public service.

Proposals to reform the public service must go beyond slicing down the size of Cabinet and reducing the number of public servants.

Changing the way government works is what will bring efficiency and improve service delivery in the communities.

Malada is a member of the Midrand Group


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August 18 2019