Opinion pieces

Why implementation stalls

To whom it may concern

A common opinion voiced about South Africa is that we have world-class legislation and policies but that this does not translate into implementation.  A lack of capacity is often blamed.  My feeling is that implementation willCONTINUE to be a challenge unless other contributory factors are acknowledged and addressed.  Some of these factors I’d like to explore below.

First, implementation of public sector programmes is often derailed or curtailed owing to frequent changes inLEADERSHIP.  I have been involved in numerous public sector initiatives where either a Minister or senior official has provided direction and mandated implementation of the legislation or policy decisions.  Huge amount of effort has been exerted to put in place the necessary technical frameworks, support, finances and stakeholder partnerships.  momentum is built, partnerships forged, commitment generated, targets met and then there is a change in leadership.  With the reshuffling of Ministers and senior officials comes a reshuffling of papers, mandates, structures and a new direction and programme is announced.  And then targets are missed, officials are confused, energy dispersed and implementation stalled.   Sometimes the cycle re-starts, other times the project lies abandoned, the ideas rejected or lost.

Secondly, is the management approach adopted by many in the public sector whereby public servants are encouraged to suspend all critical thought and act solely uponINSTRUCTION.  I was confronted with this mentality when I assumed a Section 57 post in a district municipality.  I was young and part of my portfolio was municipal health services – a subject that I knew very little about.  During my first staff interaction I introduced myself and what I thought the priorities of this function should be.  Despite the fact that municipal health is a professional service and that I was one of the least experienced in the field in the room at that time, no-one challenged me.  I was dumb-founded, I wanted the officials to engage and debate with me.  It was only after working in the district for a few years and experiencing a councillor informing me that I had been employed to implement and not to think and a provincial MEC  stated that a technical position I was championing was a career-limiting move that I understood my team.  The capacity loss that this management approach presents is huge in terms of innovation, skills utilisation and productivity within the public sector.   Implementation is dependent on instruction and often the instruction is not forthcoming.

Thirdly, is a lack of focus in the public sector.  As a senior manager in a municipality I was responsible for over 100 indicators.  I engage frequently with public sector officials who are constantly under pressure to deliver on political and technical whims and demands.  The default mode appears to be crisis management.  There is little time for technical reflection and re-strategising.  Public officials often exert a huge amount of energy for very little return.  The public sector machinery often feels heavy -that it is geared towards generating blockages as opposed to delivery.  My opinion is that there is a desire in everyone to contribute and deliver.  Clear mandates, achievable targets, and a supportive institutionalENVIRONMENTwould unlock massive energy and potential.

Fourthly, once a project has actually made its way out of a public building and into the community for implementation, it is confronted with another fraughtENVIRONMENT.  I think of derailed projects in a Mpumalanga local municipality owing to in-fighting within the ruling party and a mayor and municipal manager who represented opposite factions and deliberately undermined each other’s initiatives.  I think of two adjacent and marginalised Western Cape communities that cannot grasp opportunities on offer owing to a victimhood paradigm that nurtures old jealousies and accusations of favouritism and unfair benefits.  I think of a small community in the Northern Cape who no longer trust one another or outsiders because of broken promises and illegal dealing.  A culture of dependency has permeated certain sections of the community, which is reflected in the significant number of failed community development projects scattered on the landscape.  Building trust and creating a conducive environment for implementation to take place at community level is as important as addressing the public sector constraints.

My argument is that if we are to expedite development andSERVICE delivery through implementation of programmes and projects in South Africa, then we need to address a broader range of issues than simply capacity or skills availability.  I propose that the following four responses could have a significant impact on public sector delivery:

  1. GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTSought to spend more time on the design of programmes that includes a cycle of review and improvement. Replacing government programmes should be a last resort and done only on the basis of credible evidence that they are not having the desired impact.
  2. Public sector managers should be given incentives to encourage a culture of innovation, creativity and debate within the public service. There are private sector practices that could be adapted such as employee suggestion boxes with rewards for innovative ideas which are selected for implementation.
  3. Create focus within the public sector. Public sector managers should have a manageable number of priorities and targets that they are responsible for. They should be mandated to deliver on these and be given the required support to do so. There should be a shift away from crisis-management and constant additional demands on the time of officials.
  4. The role of process facilitation within conflict-ridden communities should be given greater attention. Project implementation cannot happen without the building of social capital and oversight to ensure that delivery takesPLACE. Independent process facilitators can play an important enabling role.



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