Cutting new cabinet down to size is crucial

The composition and size of the next cabinet is going to be critical to determining whether the next government succeeds. Its task will be mammoth: to provide political stability while implementing a series of significant reforms, the necessity of which is clear from the brute fact that the state has been collapsing around the ears of the last administration.

Faced with the complexity of the new government’s tasks, it’s possible that the next president will be tempted to form a large cabinet full of a multiplicity of voices. This is a temptation he should resist: a large cabinet filled with divergent viewpoints will be a place to which any serious proposal for reform will go to die slowly as it is white-anted away through endless consultation and procrastination.

Notwithstanding temptations to the contrary, the next president will be best served by a small cabinet composed of experienced, skilled and honest political executives capable of leading change in large organisations while driving a process of reform. This task is complicated by the constitutional provision that the president must select all but two of his cabinet from the legislature.

Having said that, the president must make full use of his constitutional prerogative to appoint two cabinet ministers from outside the National Assembly. This is a crucial mechanism to bring new leadership and specialist expertise into key positions at a time of national crisis.

The next president can do more to ensure that ministers are personally honest and uncompromised by asking all prospective members to declare to his office the sources of their income and wealth, as well as that of their families. These declaration should be followed up, and any dishonesty in these declarations should render the individual ineligible for a cabinet post.

Any hope of progress being made by a newly-elected government necessitates a high-performing, streamlined centre of government

Perhaps the most important principle the president’s cabinet should embody is “fewer is better”. If there is one thing we have learnt from the ginormous cabinets of presidents Zuma and Ramaphosa, it is that in the context of a political executive, there is no such thing as the wisdom of crowds. Cabinets need to be small, agile and focused if they are to act cohesively, and if there is to be any prospect of collective responsibility for decisions and their implementation. Too large a number of ministers tends to cloud the waters of debate rather than facilitating clarity of thought and action.

We are putting a proposal on the table for one possible configuration of the new cabinet that cuts the number of ministers from 30 to 20. It would be a mistake however to fixate on the precise number of cabinet ministers in thinking about what a streamlined executive would look like. In South Africa’s system of governance, significant responsibilities are conferred on ministers through legislation, and, if these are to be executed with appropriate care and diligence, ministers’ portfolios cannot be expanded too much without increasing the risk that too little attention will be paid to key decisions.

The workings of the cabinet need to be rethought. From reports we have heard and from the nature of the decisions taken by cabinet in recent years it seems clear, for example, that there is insufficient account taken of the minister of finance’s views about the affordability and sustainability of policy proposals. This needs to change: a president and his minister of finance need to work hand in glove, and they need to make sure there is no policy daylight between them.

It is not just the membership of the cabinet that matters. It is also critical that cabinet processes be improved.

All the available evidence suggests that cabinet is not being presented with proposals that are properly thought through and accurately costed. Nor is it clear that these proposals fit into a manageable set of priorities. All of this needs to change.

Cabinet processes need to be more disciplined, and a revitalised Presidency needs be briefing the president more fully; proposals that go to cabinet must be properly costed or they must not be considered. Above all, cabinet needs a small number of clearly defined priorities or it will flounder. This requires a degree of leadership and discipline: President Ramaphosa’s tendency to redefine the list of priorities every time he reads a speech needs to become a thing of the past.

A reform-minded president must have access to institutional machinery that allows him to monitor — and, more important, evaluate — the performance of government and of his ministers. He would also need high quality advice on the choices that need to be made across many policy domains ranging from the restructuring of state-owned companies and the combating of corruption to the hair-raising fiscal implications of NHI and a universal basic income grant.

Of course, this is the purpose of cabinet, but these issues are so material to South Africa’s prospects that the president should have access to unfiltered, institutionally disinterested advice from experts. This is important not just for making sure that the right decisions are taken by cabinet, but also for ensuring that those decisions are actually reflected in the work that the relevant ministers and departments do after cabinet has made its decisions.

This role — of following up the implementation of cabinet decisions — is not an insignificant consideration, given the long experience we have of decisions’ being slow-walked by reluctant ministers and directors-general who have, for one reason or another, failed to embrace reforms or who have engineered changes to the details of policy design that undercut the original policy intention. A beefed-up Operation Vulindlela should, therefore, become a delivery unit focused on making sure reforms are implemented.

While designing reforms is often primarily a technical process, selling those reforms, especially in the face of opposition by people whose interests may be harmed by those reforms, is political and strategic. This is why a president may be aptly described as “communicator-in-chief”, because it is his responsibility to ensure that the whole of society (citizens across the board, investors, civil servants and many more) understands and supports the reforms he leads. Critically, he needs to build a compelling vision of the kind of future that will be made possible by the reforms he is championing, and which will be impossible to achieve if reforms are not undertaken.

Improvements in public services and the acceleration of growth that reform will herald will take time to make a meaningful impact on society. In the meantime, of course, those who oppose reform will be mobilising opposition. They will argue that the reforms represent “selling out” or that they serve the interests of “white monopoly capital”. They will argue also that the reforms do not or will not work. These arguments need to be anticipated and addressed, and the messaging of the president and the cabinet needs to be confident, effective and, as much as possible, unchanging

Any hope of progress being made by a newly-elected government necessitates a high-performing, streamlined centre of government setting priorities and introducing a new approach to how to govern South Africa. This requires a reorganised Presidency, and a smaller, more fit-for-purpose cabinet, where reporting lines are clear, where duplication of effort is avoided, and where everyone is committed to a deepened reform agenda.

This article draws on CDE’s Agenda 2024 project which identifies urgent priority actions that the new government, once established, needs to focus on.

Article published by the Sunday Times

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