How an informed governance approach can lead to better development progress

Election posters on lamp-posts in Claremont, Cape Town. Photo: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

Election posters on lamp-posts in Claremont, Cape Town. Photo: Armand Hough / Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 22, 2024


The silly season has just begun the world over as more than 50% of the world goes to the polls in 2024. The frenzy for filling up stadia has become the order of the day.

With just about 40 days to one of those crucial dates on the South African calendar, posters of wannabe leaders of the seventh administration litter the electric poles and any advertising space on social media.

It is at this time amazingly that would-be politicians are abuzz and embrace factual information to woo voters in a typical new date syndrome and then in a predictable manner the sizzling date is promptly abandoned once the politician is in office. This happens so often to the detriment of their policy intent.

Election season is in full swing in South Africa. This as the country celebrates a 30-year milestone since 1994 transitioned from the system of apartheid to one of majority rule in just 40 days.

With general elections scheduled for May 29, 2024 the five-year election cycle requires that the seventh administration will soon be sworn in. And so, the political party manifesto now makes an appearance as the means of persuading voters to vote in a particular way.

It is rather unusual, that despite the hyperbole, hype and outright lies often encountered at election rallies, would-be public leaders of all hues and shades tend to depend on an information-based document to persuade voters of their bona fides: the manifesto.

A manifesto is associated with the Latin term manifestum, meaning a list of facts.

This document reflects the importance of factual information to politicians as they set out to define themselves at the beginning of an election season.

Set as a blueprint for how they intend to govern, the manifesto is often well researched and presented with a clear emphasis on problems and their proposed solutions.

In this regard, unusual as it may seem, politicians are actually very much in line with the first stage in public policy practice: issue recognition.

This is commendable and holds great promise if it were to be maintained through the mandate governance duration.

Alas, the focus on informed governance tends to wane when electoral victory is declared, and the manifesto is left to gather dust in a drawer somewhere, until the next election season. With electoral victory, we tend to enter a period of free-wheeling decision-making often on the random whims of very arrogant public leaders.

It is vital that politicians remain aware of the importance of information as the cornerstone of their pitch to voters.

Indeed, its value must never diminish thereafter and it holds the potential to enhance governance worthiness and credibility in a political party if used at every turn.

Furthermore, those persuaded by the manifesto, or its informal interpretation, at election rallies would know when it is abandoned.

In other words, the reality of society's progress or lack of thereof, is constantly measured against political intent.

This is the vital point which politicians need to bear in mind and take cognisance of throughout the governing process.

If addressed well it can ensure their longevity and that of successful programs, but if abandoned, it eventually leads to failure at the polls and often scepticism towards democracy.

This scenario is accentuated by the fact that we live in an information age: anyone, everyone can create and disseminate real-time events to wide audiences through channels that long dismissed gate-keepers or authorisation.

And so, the question for a successful public leader should be: Does what I know and the programs I champion match the reality on the ground; does it concur with the lived experience of the people governed?

If there is a mismatch, distrust sets in and sooner or later the results show up at the next polls.

How then do public leaders avoid this scenario? By ensuring that evidence-led decision making and program execution are central to accountable and trustworthy governance processes.

The manifesto does not start with a poster frenzy period and ends with an inaugural festivity. The manifesto is what runs the governance chain. Therefore, investment in researching and presenting a manifesto, should be maintained and enhanced throughout the mandate period. Constant tracking of issues, progress made or constraints to implementation of solutions, needs to be the bedrock of any central administration and its branches.

In the absence of such mechanisms, the governance process becomes akin to shooting in the dark or driving without a clear destination. With an increasingly better informed electorate, the loss of trust and respect for a clueless, uninformed government is hard to reverse.

Regular, periodic engagement with researchers who understand the scope of development issues and are skilled in the use of modern analytical tools would place any self-respecting politician on par with their responsibilities.

Why? Because enhancing evidence-based decision making helps establish credibility on the ground. The opposite of this is the very sad scenario of being out of synch and presenting outdated information to better-informed constituents.

For example, a new paper, Multidimensional Poverty: Future Proof with Linked Macro-Micro Modelling by the ADRS Global’s, and co-director of the Economic Modelling Academy, Dr Asghar Adelzadeh and Ludwe Ngangelizwe propose a groundbreaking approach to predicting future multidimensional poverty (MDP) in South Africa – and planning for it.

This is the kind of information public leaders should lean on; the facts to inform the manifesto.

In general they should seek to be better informed and govern accordingly.

The methods and tools of the information-age are readily available to support the achievement of consistent development results, the training is available, the ability to have a real edge - clear and imminent. What are they waiting for?

Choose not to be left behind in leading the charge against poverty, inequality and unemployment

Dr Pali Lehohla is a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa.