South Africa

Parliament

Sudden rush to appoint new Parliamentary Budget Office boss after two years of inattention

Sudden rush to appoint new Parliamentary Budget Office boss after two years of inattention
Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Without a director, and in a post-2019 Parliament marked by a substantial turnover of MPs – and related loss of institutional memory – the Parliamentary Budget Office seemed to have fallen off the radar.

After two years without a boss, the Parliamentary Budget Office is getting closer to having a new director. There’s a sudden push to get that appointment sealed in just over a month, in October.

Of the 56 applications, 17 failed the online process, while of the 39 successful applications only 13 met the minimum standards. Nine were shortlisted by the four parliamentary finance and appropriation committees’ subcommittee on appointing the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) director when it met on 11 September.

Interviews are scheduled for 22 September, to be followed by the selection of the final three candidates. After vetting, a final single nominee will be chosen by 13 October, followed by a report to go to the House for approval. The aim is to complete the process before the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) in late October.

Among the candidates are three PBO deputy directors – Dumisani Jantjies, Mohamed Seeraj and Nelia Orlandi. Also on the shortlist are Public Enterprises chief director Dzingai Chapfuwa, Limpopo Treasury director of macroeconomic analysis Jacobus Mostert, South African Local Government Association (Salga) senior researcher Lungelwa Kaywood, former Financial and Fiscal Commission (FFC) CEO turned consultant Bongani Khumalo, FFC chairperson Dan Plaatjies and Ian Stuart, a longstanding acting deputy director-general, who has acted as head of  National Treasury’s Budget Office.  

All applied to the advert for the R2,031,591-a-year job before the 22 November 2019 deadline. Whoever gets the job will have their hands full reversing years of inattention to the PBO, whose first director resigned and left by October 2018.

“They have neglected the office,” is how one parliamentary insider put it.

On 1 October 2018 former PBO director Professor Mohammed Jahed returned to Gauteng for family reasons, as he then told Daily Maverick.

Budget office is director-less 4 months after contract extended and R265,000 bursary recipient is also departing

But his resignation came just months after the National Assembly approved the extension of his contract with a R2.45-million income until three months after the May 2019 elections.

It had been a rush. Jahed’s contract expired on 3 June 2018, but the then speaker, Baleka Mbete, referred the matter to the committee only in mid-May 2018.

By 24 May 2018 it was decided that rather than look for a new candidate, Jahed’s contract would be extended until three months after the May 2019 elections. On the eve of an extended 10-week, electioneering focused mid-year recess, on 29 May, the National Assembly approved the extension, despite DA objections over process short cuts, and concerns by the EFF and IFP that the PBO needed more attention to be put right.

A packed in-tray and the May 2019 elections dominated the parliamentary calendar for 2018. The elections came and went and the new Parliament was sworn in.

The PBO director’s post remained vacant.

In late August 2019 this was finally discussed in the Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament.

According to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) records, the then DA chief whip, John Steenhuisen, raised concerns. The committee co-chair, ANC MP Dikeledi Mahlangu, agreed.

The PMG committee meeting record shows that PBO deputy director Nelia Orlandi told MPs how at that stage no one had yet been appointed from among the deputies as acting director, as her fellow deputy Jantjies said that filling the vacant position was Parliament’s prerogative.

Following this 28 August 2019 meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on the Financial Management of Parliament, the PBO director job advert appeared, including criteria such as “sound diplomacy and political savvy” and “ability to interact and relate at different levels within a political environment”, alongside qualifications and at least 10 years’ experience.

“We got held up in the Covid-19 lockdown and two Budgets, but we are back on track,” Standing Committee on Appropriation chair Sfiso Buthelezi told Daily Maverick in his capacity as chairperson of the subcommittee to fill that PBO director’s vacancy.

That the candidates were selected from a November 2019 application deadline was not an issue that had arisen, said Buthelezi, adding that the quality of candidates was positive.

However, Daily Maverick understands some candidates, including Plaatjies, may yet withdraw before Tuesday’s interviews.

Without a boss, and in a post-2019 Parliament marked by a substantial turnover of MPs – and related loss of institutional memory – the PBO seemed to have fallen under the radar.

The basics were done, like presenting reports on the Budget, MTBPS, Division of Revenue and the fiscal framework to the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces finance and appropriation committees. A Quarterly Economic Brief was also published. Since 2016 no new topic-specific committee briefings, be they on social grants or the cost of industrial initiatives, have been published, according to the PBO website.

But the thinking behind the PBO was always that it was going to do more — and the director was given the mandate to drive that process.

When in February 2013 the then speaker, Max Sisulu, announced the PBO would provide “independent, objective, and professional research, advice and analysis”, this was meant to boost MPs’ oversight capacity. Or as Sisulu subsequently put in his Parliament Budget vote debate in June 2013, the PBO would provide MPs with the tools, “to engage, challenge and scrutinise the executive and state bureaucracies”.

The bottom line? South Africa’s PBO, within its mandate, can do more than critique the Budget and MTBPS by briefing MPs on costings, subject-specific research and economic trends analysis – and in that way contribute to quality lawmaking.

The Parliamentary Budget Office was a milestone in Parliament, asserting its right to amend money bills, such as the Budget. It had been strenuously opposed by the National Treasury, and it took a law – the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act that took some 12 years to finally come into effect in 2009 – to give effect to Parliament’s constitutional responsibility under Section 77 of the Constitution.

South Africa’s PBO is one of at least eight in Africa – Uganda’s was established in 2001, others exist in Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and since 2016, also in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania.

All provide their respective national legislatures with independent, non-partisan professional analysis of budgets, finances and economic issues.

For example, Kenya’s parliamentary budget office in September 2020 provided MPs with an analysis on the impact of Covid-19, from the global right down to local impacts in Kenya’s informal settlements where “over 80% of people… reported a partial or total loss in income due to the Covid-19 pandemic”. 

A similar Covid-19 analysis was conducted by the UK equivalent, the Office for Budget Responsibility that was established in 2010 for ongoing research on the economy.

Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer, Yves Giroux in the 2019/20 financial year also issued a labour market assessment and fiscal analysis of Canada’s national housing strategy and middle-class tax cuts.

In the US, the Congressional Budget Office found itself in the middle of a political backlash from the Trump administration over its analysis of how at least 20 million more Americans would end up without healthcare in 2020, and rising, if the so-called Obamacare, officially the Affordable Care Act, was abolished.

And while Congress endorsed the abolition of the Affordable Care Act by a four-vote margin in 2017, the Senate has not yet acted on this.

The bottom line? South Africa’s PBO, within its mandate, can do more than critique the Budget and MTBPS by briefing MPs on costings, subject-specific research and economic trends analysis – and in that way contribute to quality lawmaking.

But for that to happen the office needs a director determined to deliver independent nonpartisan budgetary and economic analyses – and to step up to ensure Parliament takes seriously its own PBO. DM

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