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‘Campaign in poetry, govern in prose’ – government should be all about delivery, not lofty promises

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Mandla Lionel Isaacs is a political economist, public policy analyst and Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Grand political statements and sweeping promises mean little to the ordinary citizen, the voter on the ground. Service delivery and quality of life are what really count, and to deliver that we need leaders who surround themselves with competent people.

The dust has settled on the State of the Nation Address, states of the provinces addresses and the national Budget speech. We have had a vibrant national debate about our hopes and expectations for government.

As we debated what our government has and has not delivered, we talked about policy choices, ANC politics and the president’s leadership style. Many of the things which determine a change leader’s effectiveness went unnoticed. Even assuming good intentions and policies, leading change is hard. Let’s talk about why this is and what a change leader can do about it.

The former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, famously said: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”

Actually, governing is even more unsexy than mere prose. It is about strategic plans, delivery units, executive dashboards, personnel appointments and performance management.

Government is a big, complex system. The world over, it is difficult for even a well-intentioned leader to get the system to produce the desired outcomes.

This is the business of governing. The president has countless demands, and an impossible schedule. He has to attend events all over the country to engage with various constituencies and working groups, not to mention hosting and embarking on foreign visits.

To be an effective change leader, the president will have to get a few things right.

Choose an effective strategy

Successful governments – and organisations of all kinds – get the big decisions right. If your goal is to get from Johannesburg to Cape Town in the quickest time possible and you decide to take the N17 East and swing around via Richards Bay, it doesn’t matter whether you have the best driver in the world or are driving a Ferrari, you are destined to fail.

A handful of big decisions on the direction have a huge impact on our chances of success or failure. Economic policy, education policy, energy policy. We could have chosen to adopt a single-minded focus on export-driven growth, as most successful late-developing countries did, but we did not. We could have chosen to give our children a globally competitive education as Cuba, Zimbabwe and South Korea did, but we did not. We could have invested in new and renewable energy capacity in the early 2000s, but we did not. The results of these decisions are there for all to see.

The president is getting some big things right. The interventions on electricity, if implemented, could resolve the immediate shortage, stabilise Eskom and improve business and consumer confidence. Following through on the reforms called for in Treasury’s strategy document will get us growing again, if only modestly by developing country standards.

The jury is out on whether we are still committed to implementing the National Development Plan (NDP), which charts the path to 5-6% growth. For now let’s hope the plan is to implement obvious reforms, to improve confidence and earn back the credibility for a more ambitious programme.

Set a handful of clear priorities

Government is awash in priorities. There is the NDP, the ANC conference resolutions, myriad government policies (IPAP2, New Growth Path), and State of the Nation Addresses.

The very nature of priorities is that they are few in number. In a complex system with scarce resources (financial and managerial), many demands and a state of uneven capability, it becomes critical to focus efforts on a few clear priorities.

I read a number of priorities the president made in his SONA, such as resolving the electricity crisis, youth unemployment, growth-enhancing reforms and combating gender-based violence, among others. We need to crystallise these into a clear list of outcome-based, measurable priorities across the sixth administration, similar to the Sustainable Development Goals. As I write this I’ve just gone to the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation website to double-check if what I’m calling for exists. I found the Medium-Term Strategic Framework for 2014-2019 which is supposed to have formed the basis for outcomes delivery agreements. It is unhelpful. It is long, reads like a book and has lots of process and activity-based “goals”, not citizen-focused outcomes.

Translate intention into action

Even when you have the right intention, translating this into action is a whole different thing. A meme went around social networks a few weeks ago comparing the Chinese government, which built a hospital in a week, with South Africa, joking about all the processes which our various departments would fixate on rather than getting the thing done.

When I worked at Home Affairs, Minister Malusi Gigaba instructed the department to issue long-term, multiple-entry visas to frequent African travellers from visa-requiring countries such as Kenya and Nigeria. It is a huge source of inconvenience and frustration to businesspeople, academics and ordinary tourists who want to make socially and economically beneficial visits to South Africa that, having proven their income and intention to return home, they get visas more restrictive than even the US and EU will give them.

To illustrate this, at the 2018 Obama Africa Leaders Convening, one of my fellow Obama Leaders from another African country came to me and complained that Home Affairs gave him a visa only for the six days of the conference. Here is a bona fide traveller who would have happily added on a few days for leisure, spending money here in the process, but who was effectively told to go home as soon as possible. This was one or two years after Gigaba had instructed the department to take measures to ease travel for African visitors.

The success of the SONA rests on the speedy follow-through of the Department of Minerals and Energy (letting users and IPPs generate additional electricity quickly), Icasa (releasing spectrum this year) and others (delivering infrastructure projects, paying small businesses on time etc.).

Select the right team

A change leader is only as good as the team around them. You need visionaries to generate new ideas and to create solutions. You need detail-oriented, taskmaster operations types running delivery units and war rooms, ensuring that action items get done and outcomes materialise. You need people who challenge thinking and will tell you the difficult things, not yes men and women who will insulate you from reality. You need proxies who know when to be the enforcer, and when to be the diplomat.

We’ve focused a lot on the president’s allies in Cabinet. Tony Blair’s New Labour project owed a great deal to his rival-turned-ally Gordon Brown, but also with the help of his policy brain (David Miliband), delivery guru (Sir Michael Barber) and communications maestro (Alastair Campbell).

Our political analysis tends to focus primarily on political principals, but the teams they assemble around them to carry out their agenda play a major role in what government leaders end up delivering.

Maintain an intense focus on the citizen

Tony Blair’s genius was understanding that the ideological battles which occupy politicians are secondary to the concerns of voters, who view politics through a practical lens. How much does my family have left over after paying the bills? Does my child go to a school which will give him or her a decent chance in life? How long do I have to wait for treatment at a public hospital? Blair entered government by winning the centre, but he secured Labour’s longest-ever run in government by delivering on promises to improve the quality of public healthcare, schools and other services.

Similarly, citizens ultimately do not care about ANC factional battles or palace politics about which minister is more or less powerful this week. Citizens will ultimately judge the success of the New Dawn on a handful of factors. Has it got easier for me to find a job? Can I afford the cost of living? Does public transport make my commute bearable, or a daily nightmare of unreliability? Is my child’s school safe and conducive to learning? Can I get quality healthcare when I need it? Am I safe in my community, or am I at the mercy of criminals with no fear of arrest and prosecution?

The success of any administration rests on its ability to make good policy and strategy decisions, and effectively manage the bureaucracy to translate these into real outcomes for citizens. DM

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