Creating benchmarks will boost productivity in public sector

First Published in Business Day on   October 22nd, 2020   |   by   Isaah Mhlanga

Creating benchmarks will boost productivity in public sector

Looking at basic things, such as time to deliver a service, will be a start to improving capacity

It is an innate quality of humans to be hopeful, and rightly so because when we lose hope our behaviour becomes self-destructive. However, if hope is constantly disappointed by outcomes that are contrary to expectations, despair sets in.

In times of desperation any well-crafted voice will find an audience to entertain it, even if that voice is misleading. The macroeconomic policy space has been noisy with recommendations that may be detrimental over the long term but are accepted because they offer good sound bites, even if they will not last.   

Many voices are fighting to be heard on what needs to be done to improve SA’s fortunes. So far, few have focused on productivity as a central feature of getting out of the low growth, high debt trap. Instead, some say the government needs to play a bigger role in job creation given the recent jobs bloodbath. Even worse, some insist we need to increase the number of public servants. When they pitch this idea they invoke emotions by quoting the high number of pupils per teacher to prove that we need more teachers, high level of crime to justify the need for more police, and overcrowded hospitals to justify the need for more nurses.

To unsuspecting political leaders this sounds valid. However, the argument is only half true. All things being equal, the half-truth is that more teachers, police and doctors should lead to an improvement in education, safety and health. However, if the productivity of current teachers, police and doctors is half of what it could be, adding more will not do much to improve overall service delivery. However, costs will certainly go up.

This is the story of the public sector wage bill, most of which is accounted for by three departments: education, health and police. As a result it is hard to cut public spending without having an impact on service delivery. This is true since taking away even a partially productive employee removes their output. An alternative is to simply improve productivity in the public sector so the state can deliver more services at the same cost to the taxpayer with the existing headcount. Can this be done?

It can, but there are always people with lots of reasons why it can’t. One obstacle is how to measure productivity in the public sector in a way that enables one to assess whether state employees are productive. While there is a general sense that this is difficult, the total value created in the public sector is in our GDP, so it is possible to measure productivity even if it is not as easy as in the private sector.

Those already employed in the public sector will always push back through organised labour against regular skills assessment. Consequently, they fall behind and their productivity and service delivery suffer. In the private sector, continuous development has become common, covering technical disciplines, regulatory environment, ethics and diversity, among others. Every year a bunch of courses and training takes place in the private sector, followed by assessments, with specific expectations regarding the understanding of the material. Why isn’t this done in the public sector?

While it is true that it is difficult to measure productivity, no such attempt to establish what measures of productivity could look like in the public sector have been done in SA. Peter Drucker is credited for the saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve (or manage) it.” How then are we going to improve productivity if we haven’t done an exercise to measure it?

Given the data generated today benchmarks can surely be created that can be used for this purpose. Even if it means looking at basic things such as time to deliver a service, quality of that service and man-hours to deliver the service, it will be a great start to improving the capacity and productivity of the state. 

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