Will Zuma’s optimisations clip wings of government?

Pterodactyls were assumed to be the most ferocious creatures ever to dominate the sky. Their massive wingspan – the largest on record at over 15m – enabled them to glide efficiently across thermal currents. Long and narrow beaks with conical teeth picked out prey with ease, and a larger brain gave them the advantage of special flight capabilities.

The only problem, as recent science suggests, is that despite all of these specialised features the Pterodactyl was too heavy to take flight.

It’s of the Pterodactyl that I think when reading through the latest “optimisations” to President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet.

Last Thursday, The Presidency announced the new ministerial clusters – a name given to the grouping of various government departments.

The current clusters are: economic sectors, employment and infrastructure development; social protection, community and human development; international co-operation, trade and security; governance and administration; and justice, crime prevention and security.

Departments can belong to more than one cluster and the majority do. The departments of finance, labour, and co-operative governance and traditional affairs are in three of the five clusters.

Following in the wake of the controversial split of the Department of Communications to now add the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, the sector allocations of each of these may shed some light as to what they are for.

The Department of Telecoms and Postal Services falls under the sector of economic sectors, employment and infrastructure development and that of international co-operation, trade and security. The Department of Communications falls only under the sector for governance and administration.

Elephant in the room

The Department of Communications will oversee state-owned communication bodies such as the SABC and the Media Development and Diversity Agency and its goal is to increase accessibility of information through public sector communicators.

Its sector allocation suggests, however, that it is less about economic development and more about the government creating a department for the sole purpose of its own communication.

Each cluster has a chair and a deputy chair – positions occupied by ministers from departments within that cluster. In the words of The Presidency the formation of these clusters “is aimed at improving government planning, decision making and service delivery. The main objective is to ensure proper co-ordination of all government programmes at national and provincial levels.”

In its design these added complexities are to help the cabinet work more efficiently and effectively as a single body and discourage defragmentation and competition between government departments. But there is concern that the very search for efficiency will cause the system to grind to a halt.

The sector for economic sectors, employment and infrastructure development pulls together 21 different departments. Reaching consensus among these 21 ministers is an expected challenge, but scheduling meetings or timely feedback on key discussion points will be the first hurdle to cross.

Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene is going to have to juggle cluster responsibilities on three fronts in addition to his already overloaded plate.

The elephant in the room is that of authority. Despite attempts at cluster co-ordination, individual ministers will still retain decision-making power over the policies of their own departments.

The chair and deputy chair of their clusters are responsible for moderation and co-ordination – not overriding decision making. In the expected case of disagreement and lack of consensus between ministers, are cluster meetings then just a space to air opinions or will they have some bite when it comes to policy making?

There may be merit to adding further procedure and structure to the interaction of government departments, but more essential than adding optimising features is to first ask whether the additional weight will allow it to take off at all.

* Pierre Heistein is the convener of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein


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