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CDE suggests new administration should shrink, streamline Cabinet

CDE executive director Ann Bernstein

CDE executive director Ann Bernstein

Photo by Creamer Media's Donna Slater

12th June 2024

By: Schalk Burger

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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A significant reduction in the number of Cabinet Ministers and a fundamental overhaul of the Presidency are important steps towards fixing South Africa’s weak State, says policy research organisation Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) executive director Ann Bernstein.

Smaller Cabinets tend to be more agile, more collegial and more accountable, she adds, noting that Cabinet processes would be greatly strengthened by a far more rigorous process of priority-setting, so that government focuses on doing fewer things, well.

To deepen reform in South Africa, the President must select the best people available to him, namely those with the necessary experience and skills to lead large government departments and those with the integrity to govern honestly, she says.

Even within the political reality of a potential coalition government, it is possible to reduce the number of Cabinet Ministers and ensure that the best available people are chosen in key portfolios, she adds.

Further, Operation Vulindlela should be strengthened and reconstituted as a delivery unit focused solely on the delivery of priority reforms, she suggests.

It should absorb the Department of Planning Monitoring and Evaluation and the Project Management Office in the Presidency, while ensuring that implementation of a reform agenda is its core function.

This delivery unit's tasks would be to ensure that priorities are pursued without distraction; focus on routine problem-solving and delivery; systematically promote cooperation across government agencies; and develop metrics that identify achievements and early warning of challenges being encountered.

“Any hope of progress being made by a newly elected government necessitates an effective, streamlined centre of government setting priorities and introducing a new approach to how to govern South Africa,” says Bernstein.

“This requires a reorganised Presidency and a smaller, fit-for-purpose Cabinet where reporting lines are clear, duplication of effort is avoided and everyone is committed to the reform agenda."

A better organised, smaller and more effective Cabinet of about 20 Ministers could be constituted out of the current 30, CDE’s analysis shows.

“Cabinet’s ability to make evidence-based decisions is weak, largely because its processes deny it the information needed to make those decisions. Cabinet processes must be dramatically improved and the Presidency reorganised to ensure a focus on key priorities.

“The State’s capacity to develop policies and deliver public services and programmes has been undermined by systemic corruption, too many compromised party loyalists, inadequate skills at critical levels, and a lack of accountability for poor performance and wrongdoing,” she says.

Not all Ministers have equally important portfolios. The most important figure in the Cabinet after the President is the Finance Minister, who must be someone with personal and political authority and the full confidence of the President.

This support must include backing the Finance Minister’s assessment of affordability or otherwise of policy proposals from other departments and, critically, of what is and is not a sustainable fiscal position.

“The President must also make full use of his constitutional prerogative to appoint two Cabinet Ministers from outside the National Assembly. This is a crucial mechanism to bring in new leadership and specialist expertise into key positions at a time of national crisis,” Bernstein highlights.

Further, consideration should also be given to bringing back the Policy Coordination and Advisory Services (PCAS) unit in the Presidency, Bernstein advises. The PCAS was small, simply organised and staffed by high-quality people.

“The role it should play includes risk mitigation, bottlenecks in implementing complex multi-sectoral policies and ensuring the President is properly briefed on all key proposals on Cabinet’s agenda.

“It should also be tasked with playing devil’s advocate in respect of policy proposals to Cabinet, testing the plausibility of assumptions, costing methods and risks, working closely with the National Treasury,” Bernstein says.

South Africa needs an urgent and serious discussion on what a more effective Cabinet should look like, in order to meet the country’s challenges for the next five years, she emphasises.

“Government has taken on more responsibilities and created new government departments and public entities. Adding extra layers of bureaucracy and parallel management structures has made it more difficult to take decisions and coordinate key actors to deliver on outcomes.

“We need to stop the tendency of Presidents endlessly updating their list of priorities and announcing new initiatives every time something captures their imagination,” she adds.

The CDE's proposed new Cabinet of 20 Ministers would see the departments of Trade, Industry and Competition, Mineral Resources and Tourism combined into an Economy department with two deputy Ministers.

The Human Settlements Department would be absorbed into a Cities, Housing and Urban Development department focused only on metropolitan areas, also with two deputy Ministers, while human settlements will continue to be a national focus.

A new Water and Sanitation, Energy and Environment department would absorb two departments and the energy portfolio from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, and also have two deputy Ministers.

Similarly, a Transport, Infrastructure, Communications and Digital Technologies department would absorb three departments, with infrastructure split off from the Department of Public Works, also with two deputy ministers, the CDE advises.

An Education and Training department would also absorb two existing departments, and mainly focus on basic and higher education, with a strong, small division focusing on science and innovation. The CDE also proposes two Deputy Ministers for this Ministry.

Further, the CDE proposes that various departments be terminated or downgraded to non-Ministerial level.

The Minister in the Presidency responsible for Electricity should be terminated and the Minister in the Presidency responsible for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation be downgraded and absorbed into Operation Vulindlela, Bernstein says.

The Department of Public Enterprises must also be terminated and all viable State-owned enterprises must report to their line departments. Similarly, the Department of Small Business Development should be terminated.

Additionally, the functions of the Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities should instead be a function in every department, where appropriate.

“Public works should be a provincial function, and infrastructure will be part of the new Transport, Infrastructure, Communications and Digital Technologies Department,” Bernstein says.

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online




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