Skills crunch in the state? Use outside experts

Getting outsiders to lend support to the government’s mission is a sign of self-awareness and purposefulness on the part of a country’s leadership. It also shows a leader’s openness to innovative ideas. External expertise through secondments and advisory bodies can lend weight to the government’s reform agenda. Such expertise is different from that which comes through consultants who trade their knowledge in exchange for material gain with no serious moral commitment to government’s success. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has recently come under torrid fire from commentators for bringing outsiders into the presidency, with some accusing him of centralising government and creating parallel structures. 

South Africa is fighting many battlefronts right now: an economy that is struggling to grow, a society that is fracturing in the face of socioeconomic challenges, and a broken public service. The government needs to mobilise creative energies across the private and not-for-profit sector in generating new solutions to old problems that are festering.

Since he assumed office in 2018, Ramaphosa has tapped into external experts to close critical gaps in government. 

In his first year in office he appointed investment envoys to market South Africa abroad, leading to the launch of the investment conference pledges to the value of R130-billion. He would later appoint advisory structures to support his reform agenda. These included the Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture, the  Presidential Economic Advisory Council (disclaimer: I am a member), and the Presidential State-Owned Enterprises Council.  

These institutions serve as sounding boards and brains trusts that offer insights not constrained by conventional thinking and practices in government. Their focus has primarily been on those areas the president regards as a priority. Some have helped to activate policy implementation. 

For instance, the Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture recommended that the government create a beneficiary selection criteria policy in land reform, which would help in selecting the land redistribution beneficiaries. The department of agriculture, land reform and rural development carried through this task, and we now have some policy in our panoply of land redistribution instruments. Ultimately, implementation of any policy lies with the ministers and the accounting officers that preside over government departments.

More recently, Ramaphosa enlisted two outsiders to lead government priorities: Sipho Nkosi has been entrusted with overcoming bureaucratic red tape that undermines the growth of small, micro, and medium enterprises. He is a highly respected executive who presided over the establishment of a coal mining giant. Nkosi retired from the private sector a few years ago. 

The second appointment is that of Daniel Mminele, former deputy governor at the South African Reserve Bank, who also had a short stint as chief executive of Absa. Mminele’s orders from the president entail leading the Presidential Climate Finance Task Team, a tricky responsibility given the lack of commitment by developed countries to pay for their historical sins in polluting the environment. 

These are both impeccable appointments that could supplement thin capabilities in government. 

It is well known that the government suffers from a skills crunch and that professional standards are low, which is why early last year, the former minister of public services and administration, Senzo Mchunu, launched an initiative to professionalise the public service. There is a long way to go to rebuild capabilities in the state since the core challenge lies at the top ministerial layer. 

Where does skills erosion come from?

Skills erosion in the public service has multiple sources, including the absence of inspiring leadership at the executive level; corruption; mismatch between the needs of government and society, and the skills and capabilities of those who get appointed; a culture that tolerates underperformance; and cadre deployment. 

In a context where the skills base is low, it makes sense for the government — especially the president — to attract outsiders who bring innovative ideas to support his reform agenda. As desirable as that is, dismissing ministers does not always provide a quick solution since, in any case, the president has to go back to the same suboptimal breeder, parliament, to get talent. Reshuffling and demotion of ministers to less essential portfolios can help to keep them on their toes, but agility in government may require the supplement of external talent that does not come through the usual channels of the ruling party. 

Constitutionally, the president can only appoint up to two ministers outside of parliament, and therefore has to rely on professional expertise to secure his reforms. 

A Westminster loophole

The parliamentary limit to ministerial appointments has its origins in the Westminster tradition. This convention is followed in Commonwealth countries such as Canada, India, and New Zealand, with varying modifications. The way Britain has been getting around this since the years when Tony Blair was prime minister is to draw some of the ministers from the unelected House of Lords. Despite its obvious weaknesses and democratic deficit, this system delivers fresh talent.

This loophole has enabled the British government to access a broader skills base of individuals beyond career politicians. Such a practice balances democratic representation with efficiency. That is not to say it is not open to cronyism as has, indeed, been the case with Britain since the Blair years. However, it gives leaders the best shot at creating a rich talent base in government. If used astutely, this system can bolster the skills profile of the executive. Bringing outsiders into government is conventional in the US political system, which uses a revolving door system, with both the Democrats and the Republicans at ease in drawing upon outsiders — bankers, academics, and policy think tanks. 

When you want to get a job done as a leader, you should have access to a toolbox with the right tools, and that of South Africa’s parliament may not be up to the task. In such a situation, short of reaching out to opposition benches, a leader’s hand is tied as the Constitution gives him very little room to go outside to scout for ministerial talent. For South Africa, this problem of skills deficiency at the ministerial level is likely to worsen as the majority of the governing party in parliament reduces significantly from 2024 onwards, with dire implications for government performance, service delivery, and leadership of the economy. 

No parallel authority

The idea that bringing external expertise in government creates parallel authority, as some of the experts have argued, is not a true reflection of reality, mainly because power still lies with the ministers and the directors general. Without these two functions of government acquiescing to decisions of external experts or advisers, nothing moves. 

Yet the value that external experts bring to government could help in overcoming constraints to implementation and using their insights to unlock further opportunities for reforms in government. Having external experts who are given the task of driving certain reforms does not absolve ministers of their responsibilities; neither does it take away the president’s responsibility to discipline ministers for underperformance. 

The role of external experts and advisers should be complementary to, rather than competing with, existing institutions and their officials.

Any leader serious about getting reforms off the ground will need to supplement their core ministerial and bureaucratic team with fresh ideas from outside. In a general sense, having a revolving door in government where experts from the private sector, non-governmental sector, academia, and elsewhere are used can bring much-needed regenerative quality and innovative approaches to government. 

When the government makes use of outsiders, it is essential that they are given clearly defined responsibilities and support to do their work without bureaucratic hindrance. The president will need to lend them his authority so they have the legitimacy to drive or support reforms. They also must be adept at using soft power in working through the government bureaucracy and its Byzantine hierarchies.

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Mzukisi Qobo
Mzukisi Qobo is the head of the Wits School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand

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