Pandemic has shown the need for decisive leadership that can ...

Ideas

Pandemic has shown the need for decisive leadership that can evolve

Re-imagining a capable state within the context of solid economic governance and leadership principles

Busani Ngcaweni
President Cyril Ramaphosa has called on the public service to be staffed by men and women who are professional, skilled, selfless and honest.
IDEOLOGICAL President Cyril Ramaphosa has called on the public service to be staffed by men and women who are professional, skilled, selfless and honest.
Image: GCIS / Elmond Jiyane

When it comes to leading people, organisations and society, there are several lessons that leaders can learn from aircraft development.

To gain the knowledge crucial for decision making at all developmental stages, simulation models are crucial for understanding and evaluating behaviour, performance, safety and other aspects of the systems before and after they are physically available for testing. It is through trial and error that systems are refined, sharpened and built for purpose. Typically, if an aircraft experiences engine failure, the other engine’s thrust is increased to stop a decay in airspeed. This results in the aircraft wanting to turn away from the working engine and entering a turn. If left unchecked, this will result in loss of control of the aircraft.

In engaging our leaders, we have challenged them to weigh the options and choose the best of the best, not least of the worst.

If we imagine the concept of leadership through the lens of a pilot of a flight that runs with one of its two engines burning but required to land passengers safely,, we would need to appreciate the onerous responsibility the pilot has. Only a well-trained and conscientious captain (supported by a skilled crew) can safely land aircraft under such circumstances, while keeping the cabin calm. In their craft (aviation), returning to the simulator is a prerequisite for retaining the trading licence. Therefore, a return to the simulator for public office bearers and members of the executive must become a minimum requirement for responsive and effective economic governance to develop the skills necessary for quality decision making.

Outlining the key priorities of his administration, president Cyril Ramaphosa said that building an efficient, capable and ethical state, free from corruption was among his foremost priorities. “Only a capable, efficient, ethical and development-orientated state can deliver on the commitment to improve the lives of the people of this country. To achieve this ... the public service must be staffed by men and women who are professional, skilled, selfless and honest.” Let’s unpack the priorities of the sixth administration in this context:

  • A capable state has the required human capabilities, institutional capacity, service processes and technological platforms to deliver on the National Development Plan (NDP), through a social contract with the people.
  • An ethical state is driven by the constitutional values and principles of public administration and the rule of law, focused on the progressive realisation of socio-economic rights and social justice as outlined in the Bill of Rights.
  • A developmental state aims to meet people’s needs through interventionist, developmental, participatory public administration. Building an autonomous developmental state driven by the public interest and not individual or sectional interests; embedded in South African society leading an active citizenry through partnerships with all sectors of society.

Successful developmental states balance strength (capacity) and scope (extent of what you want to implement) to deliver their objectives. Tangible markers of success include, but are not limited to, strong, resilient institutions across all spheres, professional and ethical public administration, execution diligence and accountability, and inclusive growth.

Credit rating downgrades, low economic growth, high levels of unemployment and recurring lapses in ethical leadership have a frustrating effect on domestic efforts to overcome the stubborn legacy of socio-economic imbalances. The confluence of the external economic factors and domestic institutional challenges points to a need for initiatives directed at bolstering economic governance. Moving beyond historic constraints requires sound understanding of constantly changing factors and contexts, and the ability to shape and reshape policy and related interventions. Building resilient institutions requires public policy that is responsive, adaptive and focuses on the long-term.

What the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated so far is that leadership needs to evolve; it cannot remain stagnant nor cling to dated practices when the world and systems are changing. Most importantly, leadership should be decisive in terms of policy consistency and fiscal responsibilities to inspire confidence. Faced with substantial challenges related to SA’s capability to navigate the headwinds of stunted growth, rising inequality and social discontent, government nevertheless showed mettle in delivering an evidence-based response, dynamic use of technology, rapid response to deliver essential services and flexible use of policy instruments to managing the pandemic. Can these measures be sustained and replicated to support accelerated service delivery and economic recovery?

With the recent Economic Governance School for members of the executive, the second cohort of the programme, the National School of Government, affirmed its commitment to support the government by equipping the country’s leaders at national, provincial and local government spheres with the skills to enhance leadership and oversight capabilities, and broaden perspectives through analysis and critical reflection. This will enable them to re-examine governance challenges that constrain inclusivity and sustainable economic growth.

In conclusion, policymaking is complex. Capable states must be characterised by diligent management of public affairs and courageous pursuit of society’s aspirations for economic and spatial justice, social cohesion and epistemic freedom. In engaging our leaders, we have challenged them to weigh the options and choose the best of the best, not least of the worst. Public policymaking is not a randomised control trial where every variable can be lined up, clinically observed and accounted for. But still, it must not be a black swan event. Driven by proper evidence, statecraft and governance, policy results can be estimated for efficacy and effectiveness.

Busani Ngcaweni is principal of the National School of Government 

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