Beware of overplanning

hugh masakelaSouth Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa (!! yes !!) in his well-received State of the Nation address on February 16th paid homage to the great jazz musician Hugh Masakela by urging all South Africans to take their cue from his 2002 song, “send me”.  One of the pleasures of being in South Africa in this time of seeming political renewal is the eagerness with which many (myself included) have been answering this call by sharing their favorite ideas.

In general, my response is to be encouraging, and focus on the positive — but some ideas, while seductively appealing, are so prone to perverse consequences, that it feels important to nip them in the bud. So, the moment I read an editorial from South Africa’s respected Business Day newspaper calling on CR to “get cracking with urgency on reconfiguring and co-ordinating government”, I felt compelled to write a response, dashing it out on FB on 2/19  in the hope that someone would take note. A BIG thank you to the eminent journalist Simon Barber for including some quotes from the piece in his column a few days later. I am reposting my FB post below – for the record, and for those who may be interested, but missed the original post or Simon’s article. [The image below –   ‘death by overplanning’ –  captures well my concern,  and gives this post its title — but I couldn’t resist  the contrast with the life-affirming image of Bra Hugh and his trumpet. Apologies to those of you who came looking for a piece on jazz……. 🙂 ]


Death_by_Overplanning“I write this post with a sense of urgency – mindful that decisions taken in coming days could  either add momentum for South Africa’s moment of optimism, or could undercut it. Contra Business Day, I am hugely wary of the swamp of “reconfiguring and co-ordinating government”!!! Business Day’s editorial identified this as an urgent top priority – something Ramaphosa can “get cracking on with urgency”. I led the World Bank’s Africa public sector team for 5 years. I know first hand that gains on this path come slowly at best – and all too often lead nowhere.

What South Africa urgently needs is action – and a focus on ‘reconfiguring and co-ordinating government’ is a recipe for inaction! (Note: this is not a defense of keeping too many Ministers and Deputy Ministers; only a plea to not get overly pre-occupied with the micro-details of re-organizing government.)

Even when the broader political backdrop is supportive (as it now perhaps has become) government in its nature is a complex, unruly organism. Some messiness, some overlap is in the nature of the beast. In my experience, ‘re-configuring and co-ordinating’ is a marvelous agenda for large teams of highly-paid consultants. It offers them an endless work stream – and when the process turns out to be slow, and doesn’t show results, they then call for patience (and more contracts), arguing that ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’.

The agenda of ‘re-organizing government’ also is great for politicians who want the appearance of action, without actually getting anything done. That’s not who South Africa’s new president is – and certainly is not what the country needs right now.

We need a series of focused actions, which can yield results in the near-term – and build positive momentum. President Ramaphosa made a great start with his high-level meetings this past weekend, focused on finalizing the mining charter within the next few months. What are 4-6 more initiatives with similar potential to have high impact in the near term, deepening a sense of optimism?

Similarly, the way to begin reforming the public bureaucracy (though this decidedly is NOT an initiative which meets the ‘high-near-term-impact’ criterion) is to ask what are the 4-6 focused, specific initiatives which can have a near-term impact? (Centralizing some procurement functions is one example.) Please lets avoid the endless morass of ‘reconfiguring and co-ordinating’!” BL;  originally appeared on FB 2/19


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