EDITORIAL: Gardening leave is out of control in the government
Taxpayers carry a huge cost because the state has no electronic system for precautionary suspensions
Good management requires solid information, the lack of which has been one of the pitfalls facing the government’s decentralised system of human resource management.
Directors-general of national and provincial departments are responsible for their own human resource management, with the national department of public service & administration (DPSA) providing guidelines and setting norms and standards.
But the national department lacks the information tools to effectively monitor processes and intervene when necessary, which allows the directors-general and their human resource units to be a law unto themselves.
The DPSA requires all national and provincial departments to report quarterly on disciplinary matters and has set a limit of 60 days for precautionary suspension and 90 days for the finalisation of disciplinary cases. But sadly this is honoured more in the breach and DPSA has had to write letters to accounting officers regarding their non-compliance with its prescripts.
Precautionary suspensions often take much longer than the prescribed 30 days, even years longer, at huge cost to taxpayers.
In the aftermath of state capture and the action taken against suspect executives of state-owned enterprises, the abuse of precautionary suspensions has been rife. The involvement of lawyers adds to the delays and costs, and employees often take the findings of disciplinary cases on review to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, prolonging the process even further.
Public service & administration officials told a parliamentary committee last week that the total cost of precautionary suspension cases from July 1 to September 30 was about R22m. For provincial departments 252 precautionary suspension cases were reported in the same period with a cost as at September 30 of R61m.
They also said that this was likely to be the tip of the iceberg as departments were known to be underreporting. They are able to do this because the reporting system is paper-based, with DPSA employees having to make manual entries and consolidated lists.
There is no transversal system to allow for electronic reporting, tracking and consolidation of precautionary suspensions and the cabinet has instructed departments not to invest in one until the project undertaken by the Treasury has been sorted out. A similar absence of a transversal electronic system — essential for the construction of a capable state — plagues the department of justice & correctional services, which cannot electronically link prisoner and detainee data between prisons.
The Treasury did attempt to introduce a modern transversal financial and human resource management system — the integrated financial management system — linking national and provincial governments, but this has been fraught with controversy and is now the subject of an investigation by the Special Investigating Unit.
About R1.2bn has been misspent on the project with no tangible deliverables and the first phase had to be aborted due to governance lapses. The R4.2bn project was eventually abandoned with cabinet approval in 2013, after about eight years of preparation, in favour of a better alternative.
The government’s payroll system is being reconfigured by the DPSA in collaboration with the Treasury to allow for the reporting and capturing of disciplinary cases and suspensions so that accurate data can be gathered. A special unit — the public administration ethics, integrity and disciplinary technical assistance unit — is being set up in the DPSA under the Public Administration Management Act. It will allow the minister to intervene when there are systemic blockages.
The DPSA is also working with international donors to develop an audit methodology to audit cases and assist in their finalisation to deal with the runaway costs of discipline management and inefficiencies of the system.
The findings of the audit will give the department a better handle on how discipline is being managed.
These tinkerings with the system are all well and good but clearly what is needed is a modern electronic, intergovernmental system. However, given the fiscal constraints facing the government this is not likely to be adopted soon and so the DPSA will have to make do as best as it can with the means at its disposal.