Paper on: Strengthening Oversight Ability and Effectiveness of the Legislatures Presented by Prof Ss Sangweni, Chairperson of the Public Service Commission for the National Conference of the Association of Public Accounts Committees

04 to 05 October 2004

Mr Chairperson, members of Parliament and provincial legislatures, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is with great pleasure that I present this paper today on a topic that forms the core pillar upon which the Public Service Commission executes its mandate. The Public Service Commission owes its existence to the need for improved oversight ability and effectiveness of the legislatures and continuously strives to improve delivery on its mandate.

Parliamentary oversight in the eyes of the public means accountability accountability of public and political office bearers and institutions. The question therefore should be, what can be done to improve legislatures ability to ensure public accountability? However, before attempting to answer that question, I would like to first reflect on the meaning of public accountability.

Public accountability

Accountability is one of the most important principles underlying democracy. Public accountability can be viewed as the defining relationship between the governors and the governed. It forms the basis of a reciprocal accountability relationship by which the public puts its trust in politicians and public servants to make decisions on the kind of society in which they want to live. Accountability is also broadly defined as the ability to call public officials, private employers, or service providers to account, requiring that they be answerable for their policies, actions, and use of funds .

It is the governments job to set national standards that really matter to the public, within a framework of clear accountability. These standards can only be delivered effectively by devolution and delegation to the front-line, giving executive government responsibility and accountability to deliver. The role of government is to set the parameters, outcomes and standards which public services need to achieve.

A report published by the Auditor General of British Columbia depicted how levels of accountability and the elements of operational, financial and compliance performance can be combined to guide governments accountability to legislatures and the citizens.



Is government achieving what it set out to achieve?

Is government developing and maintaining the capacity to deliver results in the future?
Is government achieving its financial objectives? Are governments affairs conducted in a manner that complies with legislation and expected standards of conduct?
MINISTRIES (GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS) AND FUNDED AGENCIES Is the department achieving its overall goals?

Are its programmes achieving what they are meant to achieve in a cost-effective way?

Is the department developing and maintaining the capacity to deliver results in the future?
Is the department achieving its financial objectives? Are the departments affairs conducted in a manner that complies with legislation and expected standards of conduct?

By committing to operating accountability, the Public Service, in the spirit of Batho Pele, is agreeing to be held up to public scrutiny so that its decisions and processes used to reach them can be evaluated and reviewed. This feature of modern democracies sometimes makes being a public leader awkward but it is a mechanism that prevents the kinds of abuses common in totalitarian regimes .

Public accountability in the South African context

In South Africa, sections 92 and 133 of the Constitution, 1996, provide that Members of the Cabinet and Executive Council of a province are accountable collectively and individually to Parliament/the legislature for the exercise of their powers and the performance of their functions. Members of the Cabinet and Executive Council of a province must provide Parliament/the legislature with full and regular reports concerning matters under their control .

The Public Finance Management Act, 1999 (PFMA), provides that the accounting officer for each department must, when the annual budget is introduced in the National Assembly, submit to Parliament measurable objectives for each main division within the departments vote. There will subsequently be a clear contract between Parliament and the relevant Minister regarding specific deliverables for which the Minister can be held responsible.

This process is cascaded down to heads of department in terms of the Public Service Act, 1994, that determines that heads of department are responsible for the efficient management and administration of their departments. From there, heads of department will cascade the process to senior managers in the department. Senior managers will then be accountable for the key activities or outputs reflected in his/her performance agreement. In such a way clearer accountability is achieved, as the allocation of resources are aligned to activities and ultimately outcomes to the public.

Considering that senior managers through their performance agreements are accountable for aspects of a departments business plan it could well be argued that they in addition to heads of department be made directly accountable to Parliament/legislatures. Should the approach be adopted the latter will have to be in possession of all the relevant information. But then again, some people would be in a position to provide the information to Parliament/legislatures in such a manner to conceal or cover up important facts.

For this reason heads of departments as accounting officers account to Parliament/legislatures through various documents that have been put in place to inform Parliament/legislatures of the performance of departments, e.g. annual reports and the Auditor-Generals report. The format for annual reporting has become prescriptive, and should represent the departments actual performance measured against predetermined objectives and the departments financial position as at the end of a financial year. The report also needs to show that moneys have been spent in accordance with the appropriations and priorities of Parliament.

In the past, however, annual reports were merely descriptive citations on activities. In this way pertinent information on areas of non-delivery could remain undisclosed. As a result Parliament could only interrogate what is before it.

In order for the oversight ability of legislatures to be improved, I submit that the following will have to receive attention:
  • The roles of those who have to account to legislatures must be clarified
  • Performance measurement must be employed as a tool to enhance accountability
  • The effect of statutory bodies must be maximized.
I will briefly touch on each of these areas.

Clarifying the roles of those who have to account to legislatures

Given the accountability process as outlined where one would expect that there are clear authority lines and no need for blurring of roles. Unfortunately, this is not how government works. Resignations by Directors-General in the South African context usually draw much attention. Media reports have explained the real reasons for many of these resignations as relationship problems between the Minister and his/her relevant Director-General - Directors-General thinking they are politicians and Ministers interfering in the administration. Where reasons have been provided by an affected party this explanation has been confirmed.

With such a clear legal framework, why then does this problem arise within South Africa. A fundamental problem as pointed out by the Public Service Commissions Report on the State of the Public Service, 2001, is that the legislation introduced to tighten accountability may have to some degree diffused management responsibilities . In terms of the Public Service Regulations, the executing authorities are given the powers to manage human resource management of public officials. Yet in terms of the PFMA the head of the department is the accounting officer and is therefore responsible for financial management in a department. This creates uncertainty around management accountability.

An analysis of this problem would suggest therefore that the relationship problems between the two is inherent to the legislative design. Alas, a closer scrutiny would suggest that the relationship issues go deeper than the interpretation of the legislature which gives rise to inherent tensions. This does not suggest that one can ignore the importance of a good working relationship between the two parties. As Osbaldeston has indicated where such a relationship exists the accountability system functions well. Both have appreciation for the responsibility roles of each.

The Weberian model of politicians decide, officials carry out belies the complex environment and the many complexities that a Director-General faces. While the Directors-General role has been variously described as the interface, the buffer, the technician and the specialist, what is clear is that this position is inescapably caught between the partisan political world of the minister and the national, impartial and scientific world of the public servant .

This is exacerbated by a demanding environment with competing interests and overlapping accountabilities. The pace of change in the public service has been so vast and profound that very few people outside the public sector yet realise the depth of these changes . There is a myriad of stakeholders to whom they must account to. They must look upward to their political superiors, laterally to their administrative peers and downwards to their departmental subordinate . This does not even take into account the independent statutory bodies they have to account to such as the Auditor-General and the Public Service Commission.

Clearly there needs to be more refocusing and repositioning towards a greater clarification of roles and responsibilities of the parties. A greater understanding of roles allows for a better management of this delicate relationship. As new Ministers and new Directors-General are appointed there needs to be clear guidelines and orientation to assist each to understand their respective roles.

The Public Service Commission is the lead agency in three projects emanating from Cabinets Governance and Administration cluster to address this very need. The first project deals with the role clarification between the executive and heads of department. The second is investigating means to strengthen the support capacity for members of the executive whilst the third endeavors to provide an explicit accountability framework.

Performance measurement as a tool to enhance accountability

Any accountability system requires feedback. Feedback from the Minister to the Director-General and vise versa. Likewise, feedback information from the environment to the organisation. If the Director-General bears the greater responsibility in terms of managing, then surely the Minister carries the weight in respect of the provision of regular and qualitative feedback. An effective Performance Management System should function on the basis of regular feedback. Ministers are not wont to practise this but it is important for the Director-General to have feedback on his/her performance.

Two-thirds of permanent secretaries in a Commonwealth Secretariat questionnaire said they receive no regular work evaluation, and that they find this very frustrating. In the South African situation, a Public Service Commission report revealed that out of 36 national Heads of Departments, only 12 were evaluated for the 2000/2001 financial year by means of the prescribed evaluation framework. This was seen as disappointing as it is not a sound practice given practical administrative problems associated with this. This report upheld the principle of regular evaluation and performance feedback.

A head of departments performance agreement forms his or her contract to deliver on the business plan of the department. The business plan sets out in detail the political and therefore public expectations for the department. Performance assessments based on the performance agreements of heads of department enhances the accountability process by measuring achievement against agreed objectives. The Public Service Commission manages the evaluation process of heads of department and reports on an annual basis to Parliament and the legislatures on key issues emanating from the evaluation cycle. Information obtained during the evaluation process also informs the Public Service Commissions annual report on the State of the Public Service. Both these reports are important tools for legislatures in performing their oversight role in terms of the Public Service. Areas where intervention is required can be identified and legislatures can call departments to account .

A report is in the process of being finalized by the Commission on the second year of HoD evaluations. Preliminary findings show an improvement in the number of HoDs that have been evaluated. A matter that has, however, recurred is the fact that the PSC is approached by HoDs for advice on the outcome of the evaluation process despite letters to Ministers indicating that they must provide feedback. There is therefore a definite need for the executive to appreciate the need to provide performance feedback

Maximising the impact of statutory bodies

The Constitution, 1996 has created institutions with the explicit intent to enhance the oversight ability and effectiveness of the legislatures. I would like to focus on the Auditor-General and the Public Service Commission.

The Auditor-General is the key institution promoting accountability in South Africas Public Sector. Widely regarded as having performed well, the Auditor-General is a central pillar of our democracy . Section 188(1)(a) of the Constitution provides that the Auditor-General must audit and report on the accounts, financial statements and financial management of all national and provincial state departments and administrations. Auditing includes performance auditing of the economic use of resources and the efficiency and effectiveness of departments. In terms of section 40(2) of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), 1999, the Auditor-General must audit the financial statements and submit an audit report on those statements to the accounting officer within two months upon receipt of the statements.

In terms of section 40(1)(d) of the PFMA, the accounting officer for a department must, within five months of the end of a financial year, submit-
[a] an annual report on the activities of that department during that financial year;
[b] the financial statements for that financial year after those statements have been audited; and
[c] the Auditor-Generals report on those statements.

The annual report must fairly present the state of affairs on the department, its business, its financial results, its performance against predetermined objectives and its financial position as at the end of the financial year concerned. Given that these reports contain the Auditor-Generals assessment of the departments handling of public finances and the fact that the departments performance against set objectives are reflected, it becomes a very important tool in the hands of legislatures in performing its oversight role.

In addition to the annual reports on the financial statements of departments, the Auditor-General also reports from time to time on matters emanating from its mandate to legislatures. Once again these reports are important instruments available to legislatures in executing its oversight responsibility by calling those implicated in the reports to account.

Unfortunately recommendations made by the Auditor-General are not always implemented and there is a worrying incidence of matters reported in Auditor-General reports being repeated year after year . The PSC can confirm this tendency through its experience in the HoD evaluation process. In many instances HoDs are referred, during questioning, to comments made in the Auditor-generals report of the previous year which again appears in the current years report.
The Public Service Commission plays a very important monitoring and evaluation role in the sphere of Public Administration. In terms of the Constitution, 1996 the Public Service Commission is authorized to investigate and evaluate the application of personnel and public administration practices, and to report to the relevant executive authority and legislature. In addition, the Commission must report at least once a year to the National Assembly; and in respect of its activities in a province, to the legislature of that province.

The reports that emanate from the activities of the Public Service Commission provide valuable information to the legislatures in fulfilling its oversight role. The Public Service Commission addresses the whole spectrum of public administration through its investigations and its monitoring and evaluation activities.
Certain of the reports emanating from the Commission are department specific and therefore provide individual portfolio committees with information that they can follow-up by requesting the departments involved to account. However, many of the reports reflect on the management of public administrative practices across the public service. These reports are, in opinion, not optimally used by legislatures. Most of these reports, despite the width of scope, reflect on findings relating to individual departments as well. All committees of the legislatures should carefully scrutinize these reports, with a view to calling departments to account in respect of maladministration/deficiencies identified. Examples of such reports include:
  • Report on sick leave trends in the Public Service.
  • Report on the state of representativeness in the Public Service.
  • Investigation into the re-employment of persons retired due to ill-health.
Many of the investigations conducted by the Commission emanates from requests by executing authorities and heads of department. Given its role in supporting legislatures with their oversight role it is disappointing that a limited number of investigations have emanated from requests from legislatures. In the history of the Public Service Commission only two investigations emanated from requests from the legislatures namely:
  • An investigation into the management information used to monitor sick leave.
  • An investigation into dismissals as a result of misconduct.
Through the multitude of reports submitted to legislatures on an annual basis whether from departments, executing authorities, statutory bodies or even the media issues impacting on effective and efficient public administration should be identifiable. The different committees of legislatures should interact with the Commission on those areas where they believe further investigation is warranted.


The topic under discussion is of such a nature that a ten-minute presentation can hardly do justice to the issues that need to be considered. I trust, however, that the areas that I have touched on will ignite debate on how public accountability can be improved.

I thank you

Prof SS Sangweni
Chairperson of the Public Service Commission

  1. Public management and policy association report, 2004
  2. British Columbia, Auditor General. Deputy Ministers Council. Enhancing Accountability for Performance: A Framework and an Implementation Plan. Second joint report. April 1996.
  3. Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996
  4. Evaluation of Departments annual reports as an accountability mechanism. Public Service Commission. October 1999.
  5. Empowerment and Poverty Reduction Sourcebook, Worldbank, 2002.
  6. Kerganaghan, K. and Siegel, D. Public Administration in Canada. 1995 Scarborough, ON: Nelson Canada.
  7. Larson, E, Coe, A. Managing Change. The Evolving Role of Top Public Servants. Managing the Public Service Strategies for Improvement Series: No. Commonwealth Secretariat.
  8. Mass, Marcel. Public Service Reform and the Changing Role of the Permanent Secretary. Paper presented to the Second Annual Commonwealth Seminar on the Changing Role of the Permanent Secretary, Ottawa, June 1998.
  9. Public Service Commission. Report on the State of the Public Service. November 2001.
  10. Public Service Commission. State of the Public Service Report, 2004.
  11. Report on the Implementation of the Framework for the Evaluation of HODs. Public Service Commission. November 2002
  12. The Public Finance Management Act. Act 1 of 1999 (as amended by Act 29 of 1999).



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