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Attuned to service: Public servants must continuously improve

To all public servants – teachers, nurses, municipal workers, and officials at all government departments, l thank you for your service.

Happy Public Service Month to all our hard-working public servants.

So, what exactly is this public service, public servant or civil servant that we speak of? Well, a servant is hired to help provide a service by whoever employs them.


In the case of a public servant, the public is the ultimate employer. The servant serves the public and is paid to do so.

Public servants are the guardians of our Constitution. If you are a public servant, you are there to serve all citizens without fear or favour. You do this by making citizens’ rights, privileges and ben- efits accessible as outlined in the founding provisions of the Consti- tution (Act No. 108 of 1996).

This can only be achieved by working within clear and specific guidelines. These guidelines include the Batho Pele principles, which are aimed at creating a better life for all South African citizens by putting people first. The Batho Pele principles are displayed at hospitals, government departments, clinics, municipalities and other government premises.

Pragmatic solutions

Sometimes the desired service is not achieved to the expected standards. Sometimes it is achieved, but there is little appreciation or acknowledgement of the service rendered. While the public service wage bill has grown over time, the challenges our government faces remain stubborn and in some cases continue to grow, especially with growing unemployment and higher costs of living. It is wise for all of us to notice that the challenges we face require a public service that is able to adjust, adapt and remain agile in finding pragmatic solutions to the challenges. Creating a culture of service in our public service is vital for an emerging economy like ours.

The work of public servants may look simple in a transactional sense of buying a service. But it is not always that simple. Being a public servant is not like any other job – or at least it should not be. It requires the public servant to be attuned to serving the public and to be selfless in providing that service. It is close to the well-known belief that old-school dedicated nurses and teachers do not just care for patients and nurture school children, they have a calling to do so. lt is almost like a divine undertaking. One of the best conditions for an effective and efficient public service is the creation of a culture of service. This is not something you can really impose on any public servant or on anyone for that matter. A culture of service is intentionally created by role-modelling what serving and service looks like.

The changes we have seen in Home Affairs attest to the results of intentionally changing an organi- sation’s culture, and impacting the way public servants conduct themselves. It changed the way officials relate to each other and to customers (the public) and has resulted in quicker turn-around times for document applications and better contact experiences for the general public. I have experienced this myself with applications for my children’s passports. Swift and painless.

Acknowledging achievements

Of course there are massive challenges left to be resolved within Home Affairs and across different sections of government. I am not addressing this here. There are enough commentators, writers, media houses, groups and individuals dedicated to highlighting how bad things are. This problem-finding approach has its uses, which are limited. We do need to highlight what is working well without getting arrogant or complacent about noted achievements. It is my personal view that we do not do justice when pointing out or celebrating some of the significant achievements that our relatively young democracy has achieved.

We are too quick to highlight the glaring challenges and backlogs. We all know them. Now let us all be more creative and courageous and find creative, workable solutions.

There is merit in the statementnthat what you pay attention to becomes bigger and clearer, and you see more of it wherever you turn. We do not pay enough attention to what we have achieved and what our civil servants have assisted to deliver. We are too quick to point out the shortcomings. It is the easy route. Anyone can do that. I fully understand the fact that we have massive backlogs from the past and we have a long way to go before we can start celebrating.

Good moral values and Ubuntu values demand that we cannot be celebrating while others are still mired deep in poverty and lack. Try as you may through training and punitive ‘incentives’, no one can sustainably motivate another to do what they do not have the inner drive to do. They can respond well for a short while. Sooner or later, you can rest assured that they will fall back on their tried and well-practiced ‘normal’ behaviour and default mode.

Raising the bar

So, no, if there is a public servant you know who you believe needs to raise their level of service, they can only raise their own bar from deep within themselves. You can only point out the effect or impact of their sub-par behaviour. If this raises their self-awareness, it may eventually lead to improvements in service behaviour change.

High performance and commit- ment are two beautiful qualities to have as a public servant. Commitment to anything of value is an inside job; so too is high individual performance. It cannot be im- posed on anyone.

A developing country like ours requires public servants that are inspired to transform the lives of all citizens.

It is the responsibility of all leaders in the public sector to model the desired public service behaviours and practices. And then the next step is to mentor incoming or younger public servants to become tomorrow’s public service stars. With our growing, young population, in our rising 27 percent unemployment levels, not everyone has the luxury of pursuing their preferred career. So the myth of joining the public service because it is a calling makes very little sense to many unemployed graduates.

Thank you to all of our customer facing public servants. Stay focused and serve with a smile.

Dr Dumisani Magadlela is a certified international executive coach, coach trainer and leadership development facilita- tor. He works as a skills develop- ment and capacity building practitioner for the Pan African Capacity Building Programme at the Development Bank of Southern Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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