The announcement by government of a relaunched policy research and advisory unit is a progressive development in the government’s efforts to improve policy making in the country. Over the last ten years, unpredictable policy making or so-called policy uncertainty had become a rallying cry for economic investors who saw South Africa’s policy framework as deeply unpredictable and destabilising. At the root of this was a suspicion that government was legislating less from a need’s analysis, but from a political and ideological posture. In this respect, the Private Security Bill, among others was cited as an example of government’s over-reach.
The disbandment of the highly acclaimed Policy Coordination and Advisory Services (PCAS) which grew to be a formidable policy clearing house under the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki counts as a grave misstep of the Presidency of President Zuma. Though the office was intended to be subsumed under the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, the newly formed institution never quite hit the heady heights of the PCAS. The political backing that PCAS was always assumed to have never quite followed the DPME as the institution struggled to stamp its authority on policy making and decisively direct the planning work of government.
In Busani Ngcaweni, the new Head of the Policy and Research Unit in the Presidency has a capable public servant who has spent many years in the public service. The President and the Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu ought to back him to the hilt as he works to re-establish policy coordination. This is going to be a painful task, which, inevitably, will come up against issues of territoriality and resistance from heads of other Departments whose mandate is to drive policy making in their spheres. For this reason, reworking the government cluster system ought to be a key priority for government to ensure that the system does what it was intended to do; coordinate policy making and implementation. That government has seen itself in court on so many occasions defending policy proposals and laws is a symptom of a deep failure of the cluster system which is supposed to predict and minimise tensions and leakages in the system.
The President will do well to empower the office with the necessary tools to evaluate and to the extent necessary, amend/reject any policy proposals that do not accord with the law of the land, and which are generally seen to be too burdensome to some or other sector of society. Where this is the case, it is necessary that the case for controversial regulations is properly motivated and that mitigation actions are developed to minimise impact on affected stakeholders. The reversal of visa regulations adopted 3 years ago witnessed currently, is an example of the harm that can be brought about by the implementation of controversial regulations that are not based on sound arguments. The number of potential tourists lost during that period may never be gained. Failure to develop mitigating measures creates unnecessary animosity and tension between the governing and the governed, creating problems for implementation and sometimes destroying value built up over time.
Government must improve the Socio-Economic Impact Assessment System (SEIAS) adopted in May 2015. The SEIAS, though brilliant in theory, has failed to meaningfully facilitate stakeholder consultations in ensuring balanced policy proposals, largely due to weak political backing and inability to amend/reject proposals. It is one of the critical tools that will transform South Africa in the long term. Applied religiously, the system will ensure that government adopts policies that are practicable and cost effective. It will also ensure that policy measures are suited for South Africa’s conditions, even if they do not necessarily accord with best practice from more developed parts of the world.
Written by Thembinkosi Gcoyi
LinkedIn: Thembinkosi Gcoyi