/ 31 May 2019

Citizen participation is essential to change government

As over 17 African countries gear up for elections in 2024 are launching a continental series of op-eds and podcasts on whether digitalisation will benefit democracy in Africa.
As over 17 African countries gear up for elections in 2024 are launching a continental series of op-eds and podcasts on whether digitalisation will benefit democracy in Africa.(Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


Economist Milton Friedman once remarked that “governments never learn, only people learn’’. He was right. Left to their own devices, governments the world over tend to repeat the same mistakes.

South Africa’s national elections are over. Now the new administration must go full steam ahead with the primary business of government — to deliver quality education, health and other social services, to build the economic infrastructure and facilitate an environment for job creation and economic growth.

This should be a simple task, given that over the next five years government will have no less than R8-trillion in its coffers to mend the country’s developmental and economic fortunes. But, history has taught us that billions of rands do not always translate into better services, jobs and economic growth.

The reasons for this are related to the inability or unwillingness of government to learn from the past. New government administrations have a habit of coming into power with ambitious promises of reforms, only to be bogged down by the rigid structure of state machinery. Simplistic as this may sound, the reality is that government programmes are inordinately institutionalised and deeply entrenched in the state delivery machinery, leaving no room for the new incumbents to change or terminate them. Bureaucrats do not make the job of the new incumbents easy, either. They are quick to dismiss innovations and resist change by pointing to failed attempts to change policy direction, but offer no lessons about the reasons for failure. Public servants’ scepticism is not entirely baseless. They experience recurring hype about delivery reform that ends with no more than political rhetoric and lip service.

To illustrate this rigidity and resistance, delivery of basic education will remain a priority for the new administration, but few changes will be made to the mode of delivery and curriculum structure. A closer look points to a number of enduring deficiencies: attrition rates are not improving; the public’s knowledge about the overall performance of the system is only through matric results; pupils are moving to high-performing schools in droves; and most matriculants are not job ready.

This is an indication of a system that needs reform. But, it’s easier to overlook the need to refocus the education system towards broader developmental outcomes. Hiring teachers and providing support materials is no guarantee that the resulting education outcomes will be of the requi-site quality, especially if the pedagogy is not aligned to the country’s developmental needs.

Healthcare also needs reform. For example, we are still waiting the National Health Insurance scheme and healthcare facilities have stressed the need for decentralised budgets but their request has fallen on deaf ears. How long does it take to restructure the public healthcare system? Truth be told, bold reforms are stalled by conservative reflexes and vested interest groupings that seek only to defend the status quo.

There is one area where government seemingly excels in making the changes after each election — resizing and changing the composition of departments or the Cabinet. Going into the 2019 elections, political parties, civil society groups and groupings in the financial sector lamented the bulkiness and fragmentation of Cabinet’s structure and its implication for the budget and organisational effectiveness.

Departments have historically been merged and separated in an effort to improve the efficiency of government operations — or to dispense political patronage. These changes do not necessarily consider the disruptions caused to departments’ operations.

In the absence of bold reforms to challenge deep-seated state rigidities and enhance performance, voters and the general public are left with one option — to embrace participatory governance to gain more of a say in public decision-making processes affecting their lives. This is by far the most crucial role the citizen can play in making sure that government delivers on its promises. There is a plethora of legislatively recognised formal mechanisms that enables citizens to participate in policy planning, implementation and oversight processes, from ward committees and school governing bodies to clinic committees, among others.

But active participatory governance requires well organised civil society groups who will advocate for change and better results using information available in various government performance plans, annual and audit reports as well as oversight reports by the legislators.

A combination of good policies, commitment to quality execution, a responsive budget and a little nudging from the public should ideally translate into a better life and equal opportunities for all.

Eddie Rakabe is a writer, researcher and development economist