Whenever we think of influential people and important roles in society, there’s a good chance that a public manager won’t be the first to come to mind. This is a pity as these overlooked workers are more influential than most realise. They are responsible for the public sector policy that affects every one of us.
While public sector management goes back to ancient times, it is still an ongoing and evolving field. As noted in the Wits online Postgraduate Diploma in Public Management (PDPM) course write up, there are many ongoing debates within the field. The course aims to equip graduates to be able to engage critically in these debates rather than prescribe a certain approach.
Through the course of this article, we will define the public sector, and look at examples of public sector agencies in South Africa to give a feel for all the many agencies’ roles and policies that are involved. We then look at public sector administration challenges faced by parastatals and go on to explain how to study public management.
Historically, organisations have generally fallen into one of just three different spheres or sectors. These are the private sector, the public or government sector and the non-profit or non-governmental sector.
Where things start to get blurred, as noted by the 2015 edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, is that recent reforms in public management have “created numerous autonomous units with many different faces and labels”.
“This variety of organisations and organisational forms precludes a straightforward definition of what constitutes a public sector organisation and blurs the boundaries between the public and private sectors,” it says in its entry on public policy. It also notes that the complexity of these structures has “resulted in considerable governance problems with serious implications for coordination and policy coherence.”
To best give an idea of the various roles of the public sector, we will take a look at the public sector agencies here in South Africa.
As you would expect, there is also a public sector agency responsible for South Africa’s universities. Wits and 25 other public universities are members of Universities South Africa (USAf). Its founding mandate is to “create an environment in which universities can prosper and thrive in South Africa, thus enabling them to contribute to the social, cultural and economic development of our country”.
For implementing policy on the country’s roads alone, there are four dedicated agencies. They are the Road Accident Fund (RAF), the Road Traffic Infringement Agency (RTIA), the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) and the South African National Road Agency Limited (Sanral). These policies are in turn enforced by the various municipal and provincial traffic departments, adding yet more organisations and stakeholders.
As we mentioned earlier, the distinction between public and private can sometimes become quite fuzzy. South Africa’s parastatal or state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are a good example of this. Public-private partnerships are another example of where the two can meet.
The challenges faced by South Africa’s many parastatal companies give a familiar and real-life example of how there are different requirements and expectations between the public and private sectors.
Possibly the highest-profile parastatal is Eskom, as their failures have a very visible and immediate impact on our day-to-day lives. For this example though, we will look mostly at South African Airways (SAA), which at the time of writing has recently been revived after it earlier went into business rescue and had grounded all of its flights for several months.
SAA, along with other parastatals, finds itself in the difficult position of having to meet the profit and operational expectations of a private business while also fulfilling its own public mandate. Unlike many other parastatals such as Eskom, the SABC or Telkom, which enjoy monopolies or near-monopolies in their sectors, the SAA must also compete with other commercial airlines.
As the national air carrier, it is required by SAA to offer flights to all major urban areas within the country. This is required due to SAA’s public mandate. However, the airlines that it must compete with are under no such obligation and can choose to fly only on the busiest and most profitable routes.
This is a similar challenge to that faced by the South African Post Office. It is also mandated to maintain an expensive delivery network that spans the entire country while competing with private courier companies that focus on the busiest and most profitable locations.
These examples will hopefully give you a greater appreciation and understanding of some of the challenges faced by those in public sector administration. This also shows how public sector management is dynamic and continues to evolve and adapt to changes in society.
Now that you have a better idea of the huge role of the public sector in our everyday lives, you may well want to get involved and help the public sector improve performance and provide better service delivery to communities.
If you have already begun that journey and have a Bachelor’s degree or equivalent and have worked for at least two years in the public, parastatal or non-profit sector, then the Wits Postgraduate Diploma in Public Management could give your career the boost you need to get involved in policy planning.
It is a mid-career qualification that will allow public sector workers to climb the organisational ladder. With this diploma, you will be able to take on more senior roles and have a larger influence on the policy direction your organisation takes.