Public sector strike – dealing with a 21st Century workforce

by Prof Barry Dwolatzky

Public Sector Strike

We live in the “Information Age”. Modern organisations rely – or should rely – on a workforce with specialised knowledge and skills. Information Age employees need to be carefully recruited, grown, nurtured and retained.

These observations are particularly relevant as we enter the third week of major industrial action by unions in South Africa’s public service. Over the past fortnight we’ve seen more than a million government employees – health workers, teachers, and other staff – down tools in support of a demand for higher wages.

In responding to this increasingly bitter strike we need to be careful not to get swept away by our emotions – I, like many others, find the sight of closed schools and chaos at public hospitals extremely disturbing and unpleasant. We need instead to focus beyond this strike and the short-term issues. While public attention is focused on the size of the wage increase being demanded, there are other more fundamental issues at stake.

Many public sector workers are knowledge workers. They are not employed to deliver tangible products, but rather to provide services. Government is increasingly under pressure to efficiently and effectively deliver a range of services to the country’s citizens.

At the heart of a successful service-oriented organisation – like a Government Department – is a skilled and motivated workforce. Gone are the days when managers could recruit anyone and put them to work after a few days of on-the-job training. It is essential to ensure that people, processes, technology and the organisational culture are aligned in achieving service delivery goals.

This alignment has received attention in some parts of the knowledge economy. The IT sector – an important part of the knowledge economy – has made some progress in understanding and achieving this alignment. The public sector in South Africa has, in my opinion, not even started to understand the nature of work in a modern organisation.

The current strike in the public sector highlights a failure on the part of Government to understand that its greatest asset is its workforce. How are teachers treated in our society? How are nurses and policemen treated? What importance do we attach to a job that attracts low wages and poor working conditions?

Where should Government start in improving the situation once the current strike is over? There is obviously no “quick fix”. Spending priorities in our national budget will need to be re-thought and adapted over many years.

However, one useful starting point would be for Government to understand how some IT companies around the world have gone about building modern service-oriented organisations. The Software Engineering Institute (SEI) in the USA has developed a process improvement model called the “People Capability Maturity Model”, or People CMM. This is a roadmap for implementing workforce practices that continuously improve the capability of an organisation’s workforce.

The People CMM guides organisations in improving their processes for managing and developing their workforce. It enables organisations to attract, develop, organise, motivate, and retain the workforce required to build its products and deliver its services today and in the future. Through an integrated system of practices that are introduced in stages, improvements in process and workforce performance are enacted that facilitate alignment with an organisation’s culture, business objectives, and strategic needs.

At the JCSE ( we have been learning about People CMM from the SEI. We have now trained local instructors and consultants. I believe that Government would gain a great deal by working with us to learn more about People CMM and finding ways to adopt it within our public sector.

The strike we are all struggling to deal with at the moment should never have happened if both Government and public sector workers themselves understood the nature and priorities of developing a modern workforce in the 21st Century. Once the strike is over – and it will be over sometime soon – we need to be careful not to simply slip into old habits. We need to learn the lessons and start to change our public service.

5 thoughts on “Public sector strike – dealing with a 21st Century workforce

  1. I’m writing this comment in my private capacity, thus: as a citizen, _not_ in my professional role as computer scientist.

    The salary for public employees (teachers, policemen, etc.), which are the main issue of the ongoing strike, must be generated from the taxes which business organisations as well as individual earners are paying into the coffers of the ministry of finance. One of the big problems of South Africa is the very out-of-balance ratio of taxpayers versus non-taxpayers, with all the many un-employed people who cannot pay tax because they do not earn any salary.

    My question is thus: Can the people capability maturity model (PCMM), as it was mentioned in the Blog of above, make any contribution to the solution of this specific problem? Can the PCMM, if correctly applied, generate more tax revenue for the purpose of paying the salaries of teachers and policemen? This would be an interesting lesson to learn.

  2. Stefan asks (I think tongue-in-cheek) whether the People Capability Maturity Model (P-CMM) can help in generating more tax income. Well … strangely enough … the answer could be “yes”!

    Stefan’s point is that public employees – teachers, nurses, policemen – are asking for higher wages. He correctly says that these higher wages need to come from tax revenues paid by businesses and those of us who are employed. The problem he says is that there is an imbalance between the employed and the un-employed.

    But consider one of the major reasons for our high levels of unemployment. Lets consider some numbers: Something like 1.5 million children entered our schools each year. Last year (2009) 551,940 wrote matric exams, of which 334,716 passed. There were only 109,697 matriculants eligible for entry into a university. Only 31,743 received a mark for maths good enough to study science or engineering. So … only about 7% of kids who enter school are likely to go to university, and 2% will be eligible to become scientists and engineers. Another way to see this is that our school system is shockingly inefficient!

    Why is this so? One reason is that the teachers – the knowledge workers of the education system – are not effective. In my blog I noted that “it is essential to ensure that people, processes, technology and the organisational culture are aligned in achieving service delivery goals”. Is this happening in our education system? I think not.

    P-CMM could be used as a framework to achieve this essential alignment. If we could fix our schools we could have more qualified matriculants entering our universities. More graduates would lead to more tax income and hence more money available to pay teachers, nurses and policemen a decent wage.

    So P-CMM could help in generating more tax revenue. Certainly its worth looking at more closely!

  3. PCMM should also help in managing the state finances. I believe that enough income is generated already judging by the taxes that we pay.

    SARS is one of the most efficient government departments. Clearly they must be doing something right or have good processes in place.

    If the same processes and more PCMM processes could be applied, surely this could improve the delivery on other departments as well. As a result the departments will more efficient, excess money could be spent on Salaries.

    Lack of delivery and money spent on failing projects could be minimised. Take for an example the sky rail that was proposed to be built from JHB to Soweto. This was not approved by the then minister of transport, but the MEC of Transport in Gauteng had already spent some money in this project. Now if you do have the right processes in place this could have been avoided.

    Having said that, I’m not sure if this has to do with politics and fighting for power or is it about processes? Because you can have right processes in place but if the politics are involved you eill always have a problem. A friend of mine is a Manager in one of the Government IT departments. Every time he tries to use IT practices to give solutions to problems, he is told what to do and that the directive is from Luthuli house.

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