Presidency: Who's got the power?

2013-08-04 14:00

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The Union Buildings always seem like an oasis of calm. Situated high above Pretoria, you can drive past, but few cars seem to make it up the hill to do so.

When you enter the buildings themselves, the lack of congestion is still noticeable and the “where is everyone?” question continues to nag. At the early hour I arrive, the serene effect is even greater. It’s partly the architecture – Herbert Baker’s masterpiece.

The presidency is spread between the twin towers of the east and the west wings. The president’s private office is in the west wing. Both have enormous central courtyards and huge stone staircases. The gentle stonework cools the air and calms the mood. The overall effect is like entering a really tasteful spa.

The department of performancemonitoring and evaluation (DPME), was established as one of the Zuma administration’s big reforms, flowing from a general recognition that state policy making was good, but implementation was poor.

While Thabo Mbeki’s policy coordination and advisory service (PCAS) was also concerned with impact and trying to measure success and failure, the DPME, according to Sean Phillips, its director-general, is more focused.

“PCAS was doing some of the kinds of things we’re doing, but working on a lot of things. What is different is we have got into it in a much more systematic fashion, with a lot more detail in the presidency’s work with departments, through performance agreements (between the president and individual ministers) and delivery agreements (between groups of ministers who need to work together to achieve an outcome).”

Political cover is important. The DPME is based in the presidency, but institutionally South Africa opted for a model that gives the DPME less power than in other countries, such as Indonesia or Malaysia, where the equivalent unit has legal authority over other ministries and departments, and has a “super minister”.

Says Phillips: “We’ve had to do it more collectively than in other countries. On the strengths side, we’ve got Cabinet-level agreement for everything we’ve done, rather than having a super minister telling everyone what to do. It’s better to try to get buy-in than to be dictatorial. The downside is we’ve not been able to move as fast or as far as we could if had more authority.”

The minister of the DPME, Collins Chabane, is relatively young and, although close to Zuma and trusted by him, is not familiar with the inner workings of national government and so has had to tread relatively lightly.

In the early days, there were stories Chabane was not being taken seriously, especially by long-standing ministers such as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who regarded him as a bit of a lightweight.

But from the officials in the DPME, or at least those I have spoken to, there are only positive words for their minister – perhaps because he trusts them and lets them get on with it, stepping in only when they need political cover.

The DPME has rolled out two rounds of a new management performance assessment tool (MPAT), to permit departments to measure themselves against 31 management standards, under four key performance areas, with a traffic light system from red to green, according to whether there is noncompliance with legal and regulatory requirements, partial compliance, full compliance or full compliance and doing things smartly.

In the latest round, for approval by Cabinet this month, 156 national and provincial government agencies had conducted the MPAT, involving the examination of 20?000 documents by the DPME.

What is commendable was the transparency in publishing the results, because in an election year, the conclusions of the latest MPAT could be politically disadvantageous for the ANC.

The report, for example, shows the Western Cape is by far the best-scoring provincial government on governance and accountability. Indeed, ahead of the finalisation of the report by Cabinet, this piece of information had already leaked after the DPME shared the draft report with their provincial counterparts, and a DA tweet did the rounds bragging about the Western Cape’s showing.

You can see the headline on the media release, or even the roadside advertisement hoarding: “President Zuma announces Western Cape the best-run government in SA.”

The officials concerned with the report tell me Phillips told them to proceed, that Cabinet has approved the MPAT process, and the DPME needed to be frank and open about the results.

During an era when the Zuma administration is often criticised for being secretive or oversensitive, the commitment to transparency this approach entails should be recognised.

This, I suspect, is where Chabane will earn his salary: by backing his director-general and his excellent team of officials, and sticking to the course.

Phillips adds: “Number One” has been making more use of the DPME’s reports, with more requests coming from his private office. To what purpose is yet unknown (though it may have influenced his latest Cabinet reshuffle).

The proof of the pudding will be in whether this intricate management process compels government to deliver more effectively. Will its impact be seen and acknowledged?

Who the president listens to

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