Political will and bureaucratic won’t

A chapter on service delivery in this year’s edition of the Human Sciences research Council’s State of the Nation: South Africa 2008 advises government to master the subject or face a middle class backlash.

“To achieve the objectives of a developmental state, the political leadership will have to address human capital issues and effectiveness urgently.

“This requires political will and skilled leadership.” Chapter authors David Hemson, Jonathan Carter and Geci Karuri-Sebina argue that the “most cost-effective way to improve security delivery is to develop a culture of performance, accountability and responsibility.”

“The growing tension between economic growth, the rising wealth of the elite and the pressures from the poor for redistribution will continue to place demands on the state to deliver.

“A capitalist system managed by self-serving politicians will continue to ensure a growing gap between developed and developing regions. Without the political will and solutions to intergovernmental conflict, state capacity and responsiveness to public demand will stay uneven across provinces and departments.

“There will be a growing trend that if service delivery problems widen and deepen, social movements will recruit the middle class to their ranks and invite a period of chronic crisis control,” they warn.

“…a period of public disenchantment with the poor performance of the state will result in increasing protests that extend beyond the poor to other sections of society.”        



The trio describe service delivery as “the end product of a chain of plans and actions involving municipal and provincial plans and national budgets, a range of institutions, and local consultation – is arguably a primary measure of the effective realisation of state capacity.”

“There is growing evidence that … some of the most important targets in the provision of basic household services will not be reached.

“The original target for ending the bucket system was 2006 but this has been further extended. About 2000 schools remain without adequate toilets, while the target for delivery was meant to be met in 2004.     

“There are deep problems in commitment, coherence and capacity… as a result of the “race to modernise in a global community” as well as achieving equity in terms of race and gender in addition to a tolerance for poor performance on the part of state officials plus corruption.  

“…the uninterrupted tenure of ministers in chronically troubled departments during the 2004-9 term suggests there is a lack of political will to take the unpopular steps required to rid the government of poor performers, and ultimately to improve the efficacy of the state.”

The chapter writers add that “NGOs that work closely with Parliament are able to share stories of proactive and vocal parliamentary committee members from the ruling party being removed … effectively to silence them”, one example being Thandi Modise from the Portfolio Committee on Defence.    

“Rooting out problems of poor performance and corruption depends on the political will of the state. The institutions of democracy, such as Parliament and its oversight committees, are hamstrung by a culture of non-enforcement and do not, therefore, have the power they should have as envisaged by the Constitution.    

“The state`s reach has extended considerably in some sectors, such as the SA Revenue Service (SARS) and the Department of Social Development. This contrasts with limited reach in other sectors. Some sectors are in semi-crisis mode, such as justice and home affairs. Unbalanced reach creates both virtuous and vicious cycles.

“The capacity of the state to deliver quality services to its citizens depend on:

·         Enough personnel who have the appropriate skills and well-grounded training and commitment;

·         Effective systems and the extent to which they become embedded in organisational processes;

·         An intergovernmental relations system grounded on a co-operative spirit;

·         Explicit and respected lines of accountability; and

·         Professional responsiveness to demands.

“In contrast, a lack of capacity can be measured by:

·         The number of vacancies and high staff turnover rates;

·         The inability to reach modest targets;

·         Dominance by the private sector [in delivering state services]; and

·         Evidence of citizen`s dissatisfaction.

Not all bad, but political will is key

Hemson, Carter and Karuri-Sebina add that the prognosis is not all bad: “Where there is a will and a sense of responsibility, there are real achievements.”

The authors add that the current efficiency of SARS “is likely to ensure that the finances required for delivery are sustained and the waste associated with cumbersome frameworks can be tolerated. The disbursement of grants from SASSA (SA Social Security Agency) will, to some extent, ease the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and contain social unrest, giving new meaning to social security.

But political will is clearly the key to clearing service delivery roadblocks. “The exercise of decisive political will to ensure greater accountability for efficient and quality service delivery is needed. This is clearly the wild card in the pack and will remain so in future. As long as leadership and power relations in the governing alliance are contested, legitimacy will continue to be sought through policy development rather than policy implementation.

Should that will be absent, the state will likely follow a “low road”, and instead “of reappraising delivery and bringing it in line with the state`s capacity to deliver, the state will continue to extend targets forward to new deadlines [in other words, continue the current practice of moving deadlines], arguing that there is a problem of incapacity that needs more time to resolve.

“This will come with newly worded promises of improved service delivery and additional allocations. These allocations, however, may well be nothing more than the funds that were already allocated, relabelled and marketed under a new name.”

Protest will be the result.