Long, winding road to a reformed state


Anthony Butler

1 June 2018


President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged in his first State of the Nation address to streamline the cabinet.

The Democratic Alliance has since called for a long-delayed overhaul of the “Ministerial Handbook”, which details senior politicians’ entitlements.

The handbook is a wonderful comic creation. The only obvious obstacle to profligacy it presents is that ministers and their spouses can only pick flowers planted for ornamental purposes on ministerial estates “after consulting the horticulturists of the Department of Public Works”.

Although disruption of the gravy train would indeed be welcome, Ramaphosa has indicated that he is more interested in the capacity of the whole current “configuration of government” to deliver on policy objectives.

A proactive, strategic and joined-up system of government is unlikely to be fashioned easily out of the current partial shambles. Democratic governance is always messy.

Two decades of tinkering – including a cabinet cluster system, national-provincial “MinMecs”, implementation forums, and a planning commission – have not yet resulted in passably effective coordination of the activities of national government departments, provinces, municipalities, and parastatals.

Different parts of the state machine continue to impose unnecessary costs upon one another — and on the nation’s long-suffering citizens. Treasury’s cost-containment has been a poor – if essential — substitute for a well-functioning state.

A recombination of government departments is one likely reaction to the proliferation of ministries under President Jacob Zuma. Departmental minnows such as small business development, sport and recreation, science and technology, water, arts and culture, and military veterans are likely to be absorbed into larger entities.

Strangely redolent of the divorce and remarriage of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the mid-1970s, the departments of our dashing telecommunications minister, Siyabonga Cwele, and his glamorous communications counterpart, Nomvula Mokonyane, are likely to be joined together once again in unholy matrimony after next year’s elections.

Perhaps more improbably, “governance” departments could be more or less eliminated. The work of Department of Public Enterprises could be allocated to functional departments such as energy and transport. The management of the public service could be absorbed into the presidency.

Such structural reforms save less money than might be expected, and often simply transfer cross-departmental coordination problems to the inside of larger departments.

Where, then, can we look for more productive reforms?

Half of the national budget moves more or less directly to the provinces, ostensibly to provide high quality education and health services. The discretion of provincial governments to spend this money as they see fit could be reined in.

An asymmetrical settlement – no doubt politically hard to impose — might oblige provinces like North West to demonstrate a capacity to allocate resources productively before they are progressively freed from Pretoria’s conditionalities.

There is a real communications challenge across the public service. Policy proposals need to be translated into ordinary (or at least intelligible) language so that they can be understood by the public servants who are supposed to implement them, and by the citizens who are supposed to benefit from them.

The Presidency, meanwhile, has been getting bigger without getting much better. It needs to provide a strategic counterpoint to treasury, which is most properly concerned with efficiency and value for money.

The establishment of a Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, has built a promising foundation for an effective “information state”. But the presidency probably needs a more nimble and political trouble-shooter, to bring to bear the authority of the highest office in the land on the most intractable conflicts between government departments. In particular, there is a case for a small and high profile delivery unit to focus on unblocking implementation bottlenecks.

Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town



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