In Search of Politicians That Can Deliver: Is Performance Management the Answer?

By Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen · 26 Feb 2009

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Picture credit: Nick Boalch
Picture credit: Nick Boalch

The truism, same context, different outcomes, applies to the performance of politicians. A select number of politicians have excelled in South Africa, but the public remains unconvinced that the performance of government has improved.  Interestingly, across perception surveys, there is a decline in the approval ratings of governments over the last five years.

An important proposal has been floated to improve the performance of our government, by having politicians with executive responsibility signing performance contracts. A recent media report indicates that members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the African National Congress (ANC) aim to introduce performance contracts for politicians, especially those in executive positions. 

The intent of the proposal is laudable, to profile achievers for higher office, but also to remove underperforming politicians. Media reports suggest that the mechanics of this proposal would include an annual review, evaluation by an outside company, and a direct link into the ANCs powerful deployment committee. The intervention is important, as there is growing recognition that many politicians owe their political positions to winning internal struggles within the party and not as a result of leading communities. As such, the once proud traditions of political leaders cutting their teeth in community struggles and winning the right to lead through activities and actions are being eroded. The trend is observable across political parties in South Africa, with opposition parties facing even dirtier battles due to the small number of seats that they could potentially win. 

The proposal from the ANC has important principles in its design. Most importantly, the contract will be signed between a Cabinet Minister and the party. Consequently, the ANC leadership would be responsible for monitoring performance and making decisions about deployment and - to use the euphemism - to recall underperforming political leaders. Will this arrangement offer South Africans a more transparent system to ensure that our political leaders perform?

At the root of the current proposals is a response to the criticism that political loyalty, rather than performance has been the central criteria to date. Unsurprisingly, within the context of a dominant political party in a proportional representation system, it is an outcome that could have been anticipated.

Improving political accountability and performance should primarily be determined between the elected and electorate with the party political apparatus used to support this. However, the electoral system in South Africa allows us to vote for a party and not an individual. In many respects, the system of proportional representation was a compromise by the liberation movements to accommodate concerns of minority groups. Moreover, government appointed commissions have recognised that the system needs to change from a proportional system to one incorporating greater accountability. 

Some political parties have put the reform of the democratic process at the centre of their proposals, often based on the view that they have better people. However, the nub of the issue is not whether this or that political party would perform better in a constituency based system, but rather that it would allow voters to effectively ‘hire and fire’ politicians at the polls at regular intervals. To ensure performance at an executive level, would however, require guidelines that the majority of Cabinet Ministers, Members of Executive Councils or those serving on Mayoral Committees, have won a constituency seat. 

A change in the electoral system is thus central to restoring and deepening public accountability. However, political parties – especially dominant ones like the ANC – have a significant role to play, especially if reforms to the electoral systems are not imminent. That role should include three important reforms in the way that elected politicians report on their performance. 

First, the basics of effective governance need to be in place. Key indicators would include unqualified audit reports. The Public Service Commission reports that there have been significantly more departments that have received unqualified reports in provinces. However, there are departments that we could describe as serial offenders, in that over many years, they routinely receive qualified audits and in some cases, even the Auditor-General is unable to express an opinion.

Another basic building block is ensuring that the system of performance contracts for senior managers in the public service is implemented. It is worrisome that many senior managers have not even filed their performance contracts with the relevant authorities, rendering the much vaunted performance management system unworkable. These and other basic building blocks are perhaps boring, but constitute an important area for political oversight and as such, are core to assessing politicians. 

Second, there needs to be a significant rethink on ‘integration’ as being the central mechanism to improve performance. South Africa’s national government has a system of clusters, which seeks to improve government departments through bringing together departments working in a similar area. The goals of policy alignment and breaking down bureaucratic silos are laudable, yet monitoring the work of clusters is virtually impossible. The impossibility of monitoring is due to the extensive and wide area of responsibility that clusters have. The responsibilities are not only diffuse, but the system has not effectively broken down bureaucratic barriers. More worryingly, it has created artificial barriers between social policy, on the one hand, and economic policy on the other. 

Improving this system should entail establishing inter-ministerial committees with a narrow set of objectives. For instance, an inter-ministerial committee focussed on reducing youth unemployment would have a programme and a set of targets. It would ensure that national priorities guide the system of political decision-making and oversight, rather than an arbitrary functional clustering of departments.  In this case, citizens could then assess the work of the committee in some level of detail, political parties could track performance and most importantly, responsibility would be assigned. There are a number of other committees that could be created, but should be guided by the strategic assessment of a more focused and limited number of programmes that government must run to achieve development targets. This could potentially create conditions for successful implementation and ensure that politicians do not duck hard questions by passing the buck, or claiming bureaucratic bungling as the reasons for their failures. 

Third, the system of monitoring politicians’ performance should be transparent and responsive. These laudable goals are difficult to achieve, but could be engendered through deepening democracy. Simply stated, political parties would need to open space for participation in these evaluations. Citizens would need to be claiming these spaces too. In operational terms, this could include politicians posting their inputs into the appraisal process online, political parties meeting with civil society groups as well as inviting input and comment. Such a system would change the incentives for parliamentarians, making the backbench a potential springboard for parliamentarians that are performing, and would ensure greater accountability between the executive and the legislature. However, there is a danger that powerful voices could dominate this conversation. Ensuring that social movements and other emerging voices participate in this process is an extremely important issue, as a system of monitoring political performance must hold as a core value the amplification of the voices of marginalised. 

The proposals for assessing political performance are nascent, but represent an important step towards ensuring more effective governance. Obviously, the proposed suggestions are easier said than done. Moreover, some political roles are not open to simply ticking a checklist. For example, building consensus around a policy is a time consuming process, which does not lend itself to easy evaluation. Equally important, is the capacity of the public service to deliver programmes effectively. 

There are sections of government that perform amazingly well and areas that are failing. Even if one factors all of these things, performance assessments would send a signal that in accepting responsibility to run a portfolio, political leaders accept this with the aim of meeting objectives. Ultimately, the test of the system will be the sanctions and rewards that arise. In the final analysis, that must mean that good performance is rewarded, but more importantly that poor performance has the ultimate sanction – losing ones job. 

Hassen is the founder of Zapreneur and Proposal Desk, both websites aimed at answering the question, "Can the Internet help South African small business?"

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