South Africa

Op-Ed: Funky monitoring and evaluation – rhythm, stink or people’s power?

By Richard Levin 20 December 2017

Monitoring and evaluation provides us with tools that can help unlock the potential of a capable developmental state. Outcomes-based evaluation can potentially change the way in which governments work, and South Africa has invested heavily in building the systems to achieve this. The Executive and bureaucracy have driven these initiatives from the centre of government in the Presidency. By RICHARD LEVIN.

Barack Obama at the outset of the global financial crisis or the bank-fraud crisis – depending on one’s perspective – chose to side with the bankers and bondholders rather than the over-indebted homeowners and corporations whose pension funds were being raided. No “bankster” went to jail.

Evaluation,” writes Thomas Schwandt, “is the act of judging the value, merit, worth or significance of things.” Real social relations and the way we understand them ideologically shape our value judgments. In a performance-driven world fashioned by an ideology of managerialism that cuts across our understanding of politics, economy and society, we have come to believe that every issue and challenge can be solved through good management. In such a world, evidence must shape policy, which, coupled with good management, can solve global problems.

In this world, monitoring and evaluation packages “evidence” often in pseudo-scientific quantitative ways. We measure the experiences of the people as we measure patterns of rainfall, soil content and seed hybridisation. And if we manage it all to perfection, with the right set of indicators we will eradicate poverty, joblessness and social inequality. We don’t really have to listen to people or give them voice. As long as we manage properly, the voice of the people need not be part of the evidence base. Sounds very funky, doesn’t it? That depends on whether we understand funk as “hip” or “stink”.

Evaluation should be a funky discipline. We often understand it as monitoring, as inspection, as compliance. A shallow understanding of State Capture leads to a one-dimensional view of the current condition of the South African state. It associates State Capture with one individual or faction and implies that compliance will solve the problem. Politics and social relations are reduced to good governance, leading to the belief that a set of technical solutions can solve the problems of jobs, social inequality and poverty.

The poor can’t eat governance; neither can the middle classes, who pay everything they earn to bankers and property owners. Some people call this neo-feudalism because the society of landlords whose economy was run on debt service and rent has given way to the dominance of bankers and bondholders. Financialisation of the global economy has made monopoly capital and randlords shiver in the company of the world’s financial managers, to whom wage earners owe everything they earn.

Monitoring and evaluation actually do provide us with tools, which can help unlock the potential of a capable developmental state. Outcomes-based evaluation can potentially change the way in which governments work and South Africa has invested heavily in building the systems to achieve this. The Executive and bureaucracy have driven these initiatives from the centre of government in the Presidency.

South Africa’s outcomes-based approach was introduced in 2009 to transform the way in which government works. The aim was to strengthen government’s strategic focus and improve co-ordination across government both within and across the national, provincial and local government spheres. Ultimately, 14 areas were identified for priority focus, including quality basic education, a long and healthy life for all South Africans, decent employment through inclusive growth, a skilled and capable workforce to support an inclusive growth path, an efficient, competitive and responsive economic infrastructure network and comprehensive rural development. Tables of performance plans shape much of what the executive and legislative branches of the state do, but they have also subjected us to the tyranny of the log-frame.

Have these practices transformed the way government works? Is the experience of the people any better in 2017 than it was prior to the outcomes-based system? Has government been able to leverage off the system to gain mastery over economic growth, or resolve the unemployment conundrum? Has the curse of state and private sector corruption been stopped? Perhaps government has registered efficiency gains in civic services, for example, but what about effectiveness? For the majority of South African residents, if we are to be frank, the fruits of monitoring and evaluation statecraft have yet to be tasted.

There are a number of shortcomings in the implementation of national monitoring and evaluation initiatives. The culture of monitoring and evaluation in government tends to be driven by compliance rather than learning. There are also real questions around whether sufficient strategic use is being made of the growing body of knowledge and evidence emanating from monitoring and evaluation activities at national, provincial and local government levels. Clearly the use of evidence in decision-making and oversight work needs to be strengthened and embedded in public policy formulation, implementation and oversight culture. In relation to the outcomes-based system, the steps required to change things have mostly not been identified, leading to routine and compliance reporting on inputs, activities and outputs. Serious discussions must determine what is evidence and whose evidence counts, lest the state engages in an internal dialogue.

A concern is that the current focus of government’s performance management system is on individual performance and incentives, whereas successful public administration depends on interdepartmental action and responsibility. This is even worse at the Executive level, because it detracts from the collective, collegial style of Cabinet and the need for stronger co-ordination and integration to achieve goals and outcomes driven by the public good rather than individual outputs, activities and events.

The success of countries like China, Korea, Japan and Singapore can be attributed to the establishment of capable institutions, which enabled them to alter their countries’ development trajectories positively. They undertook specific interventions in their own contexts, with broadly common institutional characteristics. They succeeded in formulating and consistently implementing collective goals instead of pursuing individual or sectional interests. In particular, they were able to utilise their institutions to create networks with non-state actors and draw them into social and economic process that generated both growth and development. In this sense, the success of these developmental states was based on strong institutions and the ability of the state to elicit broad-based co-operation to promote developmental goals. These states put a premium on effectiveness, outcomes and impact, while efficiency was important but often secondary.

A key feature of developmental states is their capacity to lead in shaping a common national agenda and in mobilising society to take part in its implementation. Our advantage in South Africa lies in the tradition of popular democratic mass-based struggle forged in the 1980s in particular, but spanning several decades and now manifest in service delivery protests. The latter development is a manifestation of the pitfalls of degeneration of popular energy into destructive and often directionless action. Nevertheless, the active citizenry advocated in the National Development Plan is essential and our history and constitutional endorsement of people-centred development provide us with infinite possibilities for innovative mass-based strategies to identify people’s needs from the ground up and build livelihoods out of poverty, despair and cynicism using state resources and an agile meritocratic bureaucracy. We need to look no further than the Community Works Programme, which may not have met targets, but with a quarter of a million participants engaged in useful and mostly sustainable work, the possibilities are inestimable.

State-led evaluation practice in initiatives such as these is fundamental. Meeting people’s needs, development-oriented public service and participatory policy development and implementation are constitutional imperatives. When the bureaucracy recognises that modern statecraft requires flexible institutions, which enable and empower people to participate in the opportunities and resources unlocked by progressive state power, we liberate ourselves from the multidimensional characteristics of state and elite capture. Evaluation that mobilises and organises communities as the vanguard of evidence and knowledge production to support the identification, fashioning and assessment of development initiatives is truly liberating. Led by the state as guardian of empowerment and evaluation rather than as gatekeeper of neo-patrimonial practice, we will dance to a fresh rhythm of statecraft. Funky evaluation will allow a thousand blossoms to bloom while its managerial version is destined to deliver us into the hands of rapacious financiers, bondholders and ratings agencies that will look after themselves and a few hangers-on while the vast majority continue to sink into poverty.

It is critical for South Africans committed to the national democratic revolution to embrace people’s initiatives and create platforms to find innovative and flexible developmental solutions to the challenges confronting them. The alternative is an Afro-pessimism, which suggests the inevitability of an emerging bourgeoisie, claiming for themselves the capacity to oppress as opposed to being a patriotic liberating force for change. Let’s also embrace the human capabilities and energies of the historically oppressed and build and create sustainable livelihoods through an adaptable, meritocratic and legitimate capable developmental state that masters the art of participatory, funky evaluation. DM

Professor Richard Levin is the Principal of the National School of Government. He writes in his personal capacity.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

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