PART III: The right-sized Cabinet — what academics say

As central policymaking and policy implementation entities, the departments of the Cabinet have huge importance for public policy. Logically, the size of the Cabinet will have an influence on how, why and how well policy is implemented. The academic literature suggests that the socioeconomic issues that face contemporary South Africa are largely not solvable without “horizontal co-ordination” — the co-operation of two or more (hierarchically equal) units of state to achieve outcomes that these units could not achieve individually.

But, one of the most prevalent issues in Cabinet systems of government is the lack, or failure, of “joined-up” government, because of “departmentalist” attitudes. Departmentalism describes the defending of narrower departmental interests rather than the implementation of a more holistic, cross-departmental strategy.

Public choice theorists see a rational, self-interested calculation in bureaucrats and ministers maximising power and prestige for their own departments at the expense of others, and often at the expense of the taxpayer. Calculations of individual prestige and concerns over one’s record, as well as issues of political ambitions, often drive departments towards more departmentalist approaches.

Calculations of department perception and prestige also drive competition for increased budgets to introduce wide-ranging and highly publicised policies. The result is the creation of policy silos, wherein vertical integration of the department with those in the field (experts, professional groups, agencies) is strong, but horizontal links between departments, which should be acting together, are weak.

So, the question posed by the academic literature is: How can these issues of policy drift and departmentalism be solved? A number of solutions are proposed in the literature, but the most universally endorsed is moving policymaking out of the department and into the centre of government, which usually describes the presidency and finance departments.


In the South African case, this move was typified by the upgrade of the policy monitoring and evaluation office into a department and the introduction of the national planning commission. Developmental states are habitually characterised by strong policy co-ordination and a well-established monitoring and evaluation mechanism. The South African system suffers from mandate overlap across departments and between agencies, and a still too weak monitoring and evaluation programme.

Politically, Cabinet sizes tend to swell when coalition governments are formed (essentially as a form of patronage to coalition partners). In single-party governments, Cabinets may equally expand to satisfy demands of senior party members.

Increasing Cabinet size can be seen as a mechanism for pacifying dissatisfied factions in a party, so the logical corollary of this is that decreasing Cabinet size diminishes the available resources to appease opposing factions in a party. Control over Cabinet appointments is thus a mechanism for maintaining party discipline.

Besides the issue of cost associated with large numbers of ministries, big cabinets diminish chances for co-ordination and introduce collective action problems, which hamper effective policy implementation. This can be further hindered by how much control over policy direction ministers are accorded. The literature is near-unanimous: larger Cabinets increase levels of spending (and hence budget deficit) as “spending ministries” bid for parts of the budget. This makes it increasingly politically costly to reduce the budget.

Reduction in Cabinet size is a possible mechanism for the reduction in “policy drift” caused by ideological divisions at party level.

Logic of public management

The organisational programmes of the academic New Public Management (NPM) approach to public administration created significant fragmentation and specialisation of departmental actors, which undermined political control and entrenched narrow, departmentalist policy implementation.

Post-NPM approaches, also termed “whole of government” or “joined-up government” approaches, have attempted to rehabilitate central control of policy implementation and formation bodies, and drive greater integration and co-ordination between public bodies, especially through inter-ministerial task teams or cross-sectoral planning.

The major benefits of this approach lie in the reduction of policy “layering” and “drift”, wherein the policy agenda is a patchwork of ad hoc policy that lacks coherence, and can often conflict with, as well as possibly not reflect, the current policy imperatives.

The academic literature suggests that “joined-up government” has four underlying goals:

  • Elimination of contradictions and tensions between different policies across departments;
  • Efficiency in the use of resources (for instance, elimination of redundant or contradictory implementation mechanisms);
  • Improvement of the flow of ideas and co-operation between policy stakeholders; and
  • Production of an integrated set of services for citizens.

Although joined-up policy-making is a step in the right direction, it must be followed by joined-up implementation to prevent dilution or alteration of policy in the implementation process.

But, joined-up government may have the following costs and risks:

  • Higher chance of failure to implement policies;
  • More policy fragility than in silos;
  • Increased complexity; and
  • Infringement on necessary separations and boundaries between policy areas.

In short, when a new Cabinet is being designed, considerations of joined-up government ought to be considered. The organisation of the Cabinet should attempt to minimise the number of ministries to prevent mandate creep, and allow for a strong centre of government to guide and design policy-making and implementation.

Boundaries between departments should be clear, but not preclude horizontal co-ordination. Departments with hazy mandates, especially those not specifically linked to “functional” policy areas (such as the departments of public enterprises and of economic development), should be dissolved in favour of strong planning and accountability mechanisms at the centre of government.

Key points

  • Larger Cabinets create larger deficits because increased numbers of ministers bid for funds from the treasury;
  • Larger Cabinets increase collective action problems because departments have disparate approaches to the same set of problems;
  • Departments tend to maximise their own interests at the expense of “joined-up government”;
  • A strong centre of government with control of the policymaking agenda and strategies for its implementation through horizontal co-ordination is vital to avoiding departmentalism;
  • The reduction in the number of departments and consolidation of departments around obvious policy nexus in the policy agenda will facilitate more coherent and productive implementation; and
  • A whole of government approach will preclude policy layering and drift, rendering policy implementation more coherent and efficient. 

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Laurent Balt
Laurent Balt is a political analyst who is completing his master's in international relations at the University of Cape Town. His research focuses on development and South African politics
Simphiwe Mahlangu
Simphiwe Mahlangu
Simphiwe Mahlangu is currently a research interan and BA Hons student at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her research interests are in international relations, international political economy, politics and democracy.

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