A bridge too far?

2010-07-31 12:53

After a year in office, our president has published his manifesto, a set of priorities that will guide his office and give
substance to an administration that has, to all intents and purposes, sublimated governance to internal party wrangling in its first year.

This had led to a sense of drift and a lack of focus. This Zumafesto has boiled down its work to a priority list of 12 outcomes which you cannot argue with because its character is motherhood and apple pie.

From an improved quality of basic ­education to a responsible, accountable, ­effective and efficient local government ­system, it sets out presidential priorities that are pretty obvious if Zuma is to leave a legacy. Other ambitions, or “outcomes”, in the parlance of new government-speak are beautiful but almost as nebulous and ethereal as those in the Freedom Charter. These include “a long and healthy life for all South Africans” and that “all people in South Africa are and feel safe”.

I wish I could be infected by the revolutionary zeal that the release of manifestoes once filled me with, but after witnessing the activist-turned-bureaucrats of three successive post-apartheid presidents doing the same thing, I am as jaded as an old AK-47. When Thabo Mbeki became president, he started the Policy Co-ordination and Advisory Services (Pocas) unit which also had the mission of restructuring governance toward performance outcomes.

Cabinet was divided into logical clusters and ministers all set performance ­targets as is now happening. Over-enthusiastic civil servants swore blindly that Mbeki was going to reshuffle his Cabinet if they did not ­perform.

Well, the only ­person Mbeki reshuffled was Zuma. And Pocas quickly became an ­excellent research outfit with very little ability to hold ­ministers to account. Under Nelson Mandela, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) had basically the same purpose but the RDP and its ­minister without portfolio came a cropper very quickly.

Now Zuma has started a new department with its own minister in his Presidency with the same purpose. The Minister of Performance and Evaluation Collins Chabane runs a department with Sean Phillips as director-general.

I have yet to understand why the same ­party needs to completely reinvent the ­governing wheel each time a new president is elected. But do know that each time this happens you can add another five years to the delivery timetable because it takes that long to perfect the system – by which time the ­party will ­become weary of its president and so we start over. By my calculations, Zuma will be a single- term president so the jury’s out on whether Chabane and Phillips will have time for ­implementation.

Chabane and Phillips have spent the past year devising yet another state management system that was released last week. The easy-to-read ­version of the plan is 52 pages long and is a perplexing mix of structures and ­systems meant to eventually ensure that the 12 outcomes are achieved. The reasoning is sound, as the ­document explains: “You must focus on ­results, make explicit and testable the chain of logic, link activities to outcomes and ­ensure expectations are as clear and ­unambiguous as possible.”

I have no doubt that the state has put our representatives and civil servants through workshops and conferences on how to make the system work, but when they fail at the basics like providing IDs and getting ­textbooks to schools, the complex system is an ask too far for a newish civil service ­buckling under already existing pressure.

Mandela and Mbeki tried (and failed), by setting up labyrinthine systems of top-down, cross-cutting co-ordination and negotiation – all of which got so caught up in red tape that the first two presidents left office ­without achieving the nuts and bolts of ­delivery.

They achieved political and ­macro­economic stability (without sustainable employment creation) because these ­ambitions required leadership which they had in some measure.

But both failed when they tried to make things too complicated and tied it up in heavy management-speak.

The neanderthal nature of the tripartite ­alliance and ANC politics also means no minister, premier or municipal manager will ever be censured for not meeting their ­performance agreements.

And the ­document says as much: “The ­primary purpose of the ­performance ­agreements is to serve as a management, ­co-ordination and learning tool, and not as a punitive mechanism.”

Phillips’ pedigree is as the successful dream-maker on the state’s public works programme. The characteristics that made the programme a success were that it cut through red tape, set benchmarks and worked doggedly toward them, and secured political buy-in as it was implemented and displayed success.

I hope he will put these traits to work for quick results rather than create yet another bureaucracy that will be turfed out when ­Zuma leaves, only to build yet another ­remarkable system designed to fail again.

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