Thinking ahead

2009-09-08 00:00

WE have known for some time now that our big problem as a country is our inability to implement the good policies and plans that we have.

Both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki-led governments fiddled with implementing the structures of the state, its cluster system, financial management rules and skills development programmes. This resulted in the proliferation of a number of semi-autonomous initiatives, such as the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition (Jipsa). They also­ sought to improve the functioning of the intergovernmental governance system from the MinMecs (an informal forum for national­ ministers and provincial MECs) to premier-mayors’ forums in the hope that doing so would overcome implementation problems.

The government created a Policy Advisory and Co-ordination Unit under the leadership of one of the government’s best thinkers, Joel Netshitenzhe. The unit generated excellent reviews of government performance and recommended sound interventions in areas of policies and functioning of structures.

These measures failed to improve performance partly bec­ause many of them were not cascaded to all levels of the government, but also because of the absence of a long-term perspective. Without a long-term vision, short-term interventions tend to falter and come to nothing.

Government departments continued to misspend, local government’s delivery of basic social services degenerated, malicious compliance with financial regulations continued, weak co-ordination persisted and government institutions­ deteriorated.

Consequently, public dissatisfaction grew over the past decade with many communities even rising up in public protests over slow implementation of programmes and failure of leadership to connect with the people. The government became a subject of ridicule in newspaper columns, cartoons and in confabulation on street corners and around dinner tables. The government became synonymous with laziness, inefficiency and incompetence.

What came close to enhancing long-range planning was the introduction of five-year and annual programmes of action. But this meant that as a country we planned, at most, for each term of government and little more.

Countries coming from a grim past and with a relatively small economy such as ours can only transform themselves into strong countries if they develop a long-term common vision to direct the energies of state, business and civil society. This engenders unity of purpose and action. It helps the country identify where lines are to be drawn with regard to national interests. It lessens the propensity to bicker over narrow and short-term interests.

Last week, ministers Trevor Manuel (Strategic Planning) and Collins Chabane (Performance, Monitoring and Evaluation, PME) unveiled their respective Green Papers for consultation. While it is still too early to form final opinions on this, they are good indicators of what government thinking is on its decision to enhance long-term planning. So we can make tentative observations.

The papers emerge from the announcement that planning will entail a 2025 vision for South Africa, broken down into five-year medium-term expenditure perspectives and annual programmes of action. They will be the products of an inclusive and transparent process involving all stakeholders, namely state, business and civil society, and including research institutions. These plans will form a seamless continuum to get government to think carefully about the future it wants to create.

The key structure will be a planning commission, made up of external­ experts and thinkers. There will be a planning committee of ministers. These will both be supported by a secretariat.

Not much detail was revealed by the announcement of the PME Green Paper, save to say there will be various forms of performance indicators and targets, which will inform performance agreements. The creation of a delivery unit was also announced. The unit’s task would be to intervene in areas where blockages to service provision are identified, just like Project Consolidate did in the past. But nothing in the statement suggests any serious change at all.

It’s too early to conclude that the thinking on PME is fuzzy. But indications are that we should beware of a central system that is unequally efficient. A strong strategic planning system requires an equally effective PME. Also crucial will be how provincial and local governments are brought on board as key pillars of efficient planning. It would be wise to link the big plans to how local planning is being done through the integrated development plans (IDPs).

If these initiatives lead to a change of attitude to planning, especially at the highest level, we will have a different future. It will be one that we design rather than one that we happened to encounter. If they transform how the state is managed at all levels then the changes will be profound. If they create a momentum for the nation to plan together and pool its intellectual resources in a joint effort to imagine a better South Africa, then a better life for all will become a reality.

That’s the test of leadership.


• Siphamandla Zondi is the dir­ector of Southern Africa at the Institute for Global dialogue.

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