Government is broken — but all is not lost

CDE identifies priorities for new administration, starting with excellence in cabinet and public service

The centre of government in SA is broken, damaged by years of cadre deployment, corruption and state capture. Nevertheless, it is possible to resuscitate and revitalise the state. While there is no immediate panacea, by reducing the size of the cabinet, getting the best people possible into government posts, focusing laser-like on reform and making the executive and presidency organisationally more effective, the state’s vital signs can be radically improved.

For the past six months the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) has been working on a project, Agenda 2024, which identifies priority actions that the new government should focus on in its first phase of office. Our proposals are grouped according to five thematic areas, the first of which is the overarching goal of “fixing the state”, and over the coming weeks and months we intend to flesh them out in a series of reports.

SA is in desperate trouble. Annual growth has been all but obliterated since 2009 and now averages less than 1% a year. We have the highest unemployment rate in the world, deepening poverty and a per capita murder rate that rivals that of war zones. State failure lies at the root of our malaise.

The government’s capacity to execute its constitutional mandate, implement policies and deliver public services and programmes has been gutted by systemic corruption, too many compromised party loyalists, inadequate skills at critical levels, and a lack of accountability for poor performance and wrongdoing. This must change for a programme of reform to become possible. And with the right systems, structures and people in place, it can.

There are two catalytic actions which, if implemented, would help get the state back on track. One is to make the presidency, the cabinet and their internal decision-making processes more fit for purpose; the other is to get the best public servants into the most critical posts across the government and state-owned companies.

The first of these actions is the subject of a new CDE report, “Action One: Reorganise the Presidency and the Cabinet”. In it, we advocate for a smaller, more streamlined, more effective cabinet, as well as a restructured presidency to ensure an absolute focus on delivering key reform priorities.

To deepen reform, the new president must select the best, most effective leaders available to serve in his cabinet. They should be people with the necessary experience and skills to lead large government departments, and those with the integrity to govern honestly. In addition, the cabinet needs to be scaled back, not expanded, and reconfigured for efficiency.

To deepen reform, the new president must select the best, most effective leaders available to serve in his cabinet

The president should resist the urge to preside over a bloated cabinet. Smaller cabinets tend to be more agile, more collegial and more accountable (and less costly). Of course, with the formation of either a coalition or government of national unity now seemingly imminent, the president will be under pressure to accommodate various parties in his cabinet. However, even within this constraint it is possible to reduce the number of cabinet posts and ensure the best available people are chosen in key portfolios.

There are limitations to how small an SA cabinet can or should be. However, smaller cabinets are likely to be more ideologically coherent and less prone to bouts of policy contestation. This is enormously important for reformers, particularly when many aspects of government work need to be revamped. In our analysis, a leaner and nimbler cabinet of 20 ministers could be constituted out of the current 30.

The most important figure in the cabinet (after the president) is the finance minister. The appointee must be someone with personal and political authority, whose word carries weight on whether programmes and projects are affordable or not. The new finance minister will be the ultimate enforcer of fiscal discipline, and should therefore have the president’s full backing.

The constitution empowers the president to appoint two cabinet ministers from outside the National Assembly. This is a crucial mechanism to bring in new leadership and specialist expertise into key positions at a time of national crisis, and the president should make strategic use of this provision for the good of the country, to recruit the most talented individuals for vital roles.

The establishment of a “super-ministry” for the economy — encompassing the current ministries of trade, industry & competition; mining; and tourism — could make a real difference. It would allow government to harness synergies across growth sectors.

To slim the cabinet down, superfluous ministries (such as the ministry in the presidency for women, youth & persons with disabilities) should be discontinued and their line functions incorporated into appropriate departments. The small business development ministry should also be eliminated, as this function is far more likely to succeed by outsourcing it to experienced private funds. Other ministries can be merged into new or existing portfolios or units where it makes sense to pool energies.

A new ministry of cities, housing & urban development, which absorbs the existing portfolio of human settlements, could focus solely on the metropolitan municipalities. If SA’s metros are to become cities of hope, opportunity and prosperity we will need significant changes to how we think about our urban areas and how we govern them.

Regardless of exactly how the cabinet is reconstituted, cabinet processes must be dramatically improved and the presidency reorganised to focus on key priorities. The cabinet would be greatly strengthened by a far more rigorous process of priority-setting so that it focuses on doing fewer things well. We need to stop the tendency of presidents endlessly updating their list of priorities and announcing new initiatives every time something captures their imagination.

Operation Vulindlela should be strengthened as a small but expanded unit focused solely on the delivery of the new government’s priority reforms. It would absorb the department of planning, monitoring & evaluation and the project management office in the presidency, and it would make the implementation of the reform agenda its core function.

Operation Vulindlela’s tasks would be ensuring that priorities are pursued without distraction; focusing on routine problem-solving and delivery; systematically promoting co-operation across government agencies; and developing metrics that identify achievements and early warning of challenges being encountered.

Finally, policy co-ordination & advisory services, which existed during former president Thabo Mbeki’s term of office, should be revived as a high-powered small unit in the presidency. It has an important role to play in guiding the reform agenda. Its focus should be on mitigating risks, alleviating bottlenecks and ensuring the president is properly briefed on all key proposals on the cabinet agenda.

A critical additional role should be playing devil’s advocate in respect of policy proposals: testing the plausibility of assumptions, methods used to cost proposals, and the extent to which risks have been considered. In this and other areas, it should work closely with the National Treasury.

The state is ailing and in need of life support. With a few targeted antidotes and the addition of a small core of ministers of real experience and excellence it can be brought back to life and made an effective driver of a deepened reform agenda. SA’s future depends on it.

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

This article was published on Business Day

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