Sunday, June 19, 2011

Asimov in the News: ANTHONY BUTLER: Planning body may be readying to cook lobster

Business Day (South Africa): ANTHONY BUTLER: Planning body may be readying to cook lobster
THE diagnostic report published by the National Planning Commission (NPC) last week has been criticised for "stating the obvious". It is true that its nine challenges — jobs, education, infrastructure, spatial legacies, resource intensity, disease, public service inadequacy, corruption and social division — are scarcely new. But, as Isaac Asimov once observed, "it pays to be obvious, especially if you have a reputation for subtlety".

The NPC is headed by Trevor Manuel and Cyril Ramaphosa, experienced institution-builders of great subtlety (or perhaps that should be deviousness).

Manuel’s 2009 green paper laid claim to executive powers for the commission and it was firmly rebutted by the Cabinet and by President Jacob Zuma . Now the NPC is avowedly just an "advisory body". If one can conceive of Cabinet ministers as giant lobsters, Manuel and Ramaphosa may be gradually heating up the planning water in which the creatures are immersed, so that they do not realise, until it is too late, that they are being cooked.

By first taking its document to Parliament, the NPC escaped the corridors of the executive branch through which the lobsters roam. A "national dialogue" will be launched to bolster the legitimacy of the NPC’s recommendations. System reviews that will bring the commission into confrontation with particular ministers have been deferred. The overarching objectives that supposedly lie behind the NPC’s work — eliminating poverty and reducing inequality — allow commissioners to engage with and encompass the concerns of competing economic and governance departments.

Compared with the Presidency’s previous attempts at self-exploration, such as the 10- and 15-year reviews and the scenario exercises, the diagnostic document is quite frank. The public health system is described as being in a state of collapse. Trade union sensitivities about labour market regulation are happily trampled under the commissioners’ boots.

The decision to appoint part-time commissioners who are not state employees has turned out to be a very good idea. The team has successfully avoided both the niceties of public service protocol and the interminable deliberative meanderings of the African National Congress.

For all its strengths, however, the diagnostic document is only a beginning. Planning institutions almost always overestimate human beings’ capacity to understand, and so to control, their social and economic lives. In other countries, they have inadvertently generated negative consequences, devalued participation and local knowledge, and undermined spontaneity and initiative. The broader philosophy behind the NPC remains opaque.

Diagnosis, moreover, is only the first stage of a strategic planning approach. It is good to be frank about the situation, but planners must also interrogate past and current governments’ policy responses to national challenges.

What has the government done? What has worked and not worked? Which policies have succeeded? Which must be reviewed or closed down? It is at this point that political sensitivities are exposed and the incompetent and crooked are antagonised.

The formulation of a "national vision", and of a development plan to realise it, can be accomplished only after such a process of learning. The commission intends to release its vision and plan in November. Does the NPC possess the political capital and time to focus unremittingly on policy failures and to draw lessons from the mistakes of the past?

The final stage of any strategic planning process is resource mobilisation, where "resources" are understood broadly to encompass human and financial capabilities. When resources are at stake, the more serious battles will begin. The NPC will stand or fall by the political support it receives from SA’s political leadership — starting with the conflict- avoiding and principle-averse president.

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