DAVID MAIMELA: The blessing and curse of political deployment

OPINION

In recent months, the policy and practice of political deployment into the state has become a topical issue in public discourse. It has been thrust into the spotlight due to two recent events in public policy and statecraft: some of the testimonies in the ongoing Zondo Commission, as well as the debates around the draft National Framework Towards the Professionalisation of the Public Service.

Both in the public discourse and the consultative processes of the said framework, a range of views have been expressed and one that really caught my attention is the confusion and/or proposal that we can possibly achieve a "depoliticised" bureaucracy or state. This kind of view is quite absurd and uneducated.

Although one understands the political interests involved in such a debate, especially in the light of the imperatives of the National Development Plan (NDP) and the recent poor performance of the economy, including the disappointing state of municipalities; it is however very reckless and dangerous to assume that "depoliticisation" of the public service or the state, is an achievable goal or that it can improve the country’s fortunes.

In the debate, several concepts and phrases are misunderstood, conflated or outright vulgarised. Before things get more confused, there is a need for conceptual clarity for these concepts which are often thrown around without proper definitions. Among others, "depoliticisation", "partisan", "autonomy" and "deployment" itself are used carelessly in the discourse.

The state and state bureaucracy are not blunt instruments that are value-free and uncontested by various competing interests in society. The state is a product of politics and political contestation. A government, parliament and public representatives are a product of an electoral process in a democratic and constitutional order. To suggest that one can "depoliticise" the state, is quite naïve, misleading and shows lack of understanding of basic public policy concepts and statecraft. In other words, such a perspective, seeks to achieve the impossible: an apolitical state – another meaning that is implied in some of the debates.

Related to this, is the very issue of how the senior level of state bureaucracy is supposed to be selected and appointed. Progressive literature in regard, from scholars such as Peter Evans, proposes that what we can hope for and work towards, is "embedded autonomy" of the state. What this means is that the state and its bureaucracy must be insulated enough to avoid narrow capture by sectional interests and yet at the same time, it must be sufficiently networked in society so that it drives national development goals. In this way, the state becomes neither partisan in a narrow sense nor apolitical.

Now, this kind of conception or character of the state and its bureaucracy, is totally different to the feeble hope of trying to "depoliticise" the state, which as I argue, is a mindless attempt to make the two institutions apolitical.

The United States (US) for example – so-called "most liberal" democracy in the world – has a framework called the United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions. This framework allows for various categories of political appointees across government and state agencies. Some of the appointments are confirmed by the US Senate.

As the reader can imagine, the purpose of such a framework is to allow for deployment of party cadres who will at the highest level of the administration assist the incumbent governing party to oversee and implement party policy for a democratically elected government. As a by-the-way, it is also important to note that in the US, the Attorney-General is a political appointee.

In the US, once the government of the day is voted out, a certain layer of administration also packs and goes. The point is that there is no serious government in the world that does not exercise political deployment in the interest of implementing the mandate given to it by the electorate. The Democratic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party have also done the same over the years in the Western Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal and some municipalities. This is perfectly legitimate and acceptable.

Another example is in the Pacific Ocean in the form of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC is of course different to the liberal state that is the US. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has a deployment policy and it often deploys highly trained and capable cadres. The results of such a policy are visible for all to see today in terms of China’s economic performance and other public policy outcomes. In the instance that cadres are alleged to be corrupt, investigations are instituted, and prosecutions follow. They do not throw away the principle of deployment, weed out the bad elements.

In the South Africa context, you do find certain elements of this framework, especially the political appointments in the offices of executive authorities and of course diplomatic postings too. In many instances, such political appointments are not accompanied by interviews or training in terms of the Ministerial Handbook, while diplomats are trained and selected through interviews, and deployed ambassadors go through a six-months diplomatic training ahead of posting. Indeed, deployment is also carried out for strategic positions in the bureaucracy and state agencies.

Clearly in our case we have evolved a unique and yet comparable deployment policy. The implementation of the policy has been uneven, and the results are a mixed bag. Is it not possible that the Framework for Professionalisation of the Public Service should also involve a review of the political sphere of appointments and deployments? For example, why is it that diplomats undergo mandatory training and board members of parastatals members do not?

In post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa, one cannot escape the need to undo the entrenched legacies of the past. How does anyone expect a democratic government to take over a state burdened with such legacies and rely on an old or blindly selected senior bureaucracy to realise its political mandate? That is a classic mission in political suicide, completely unthinkable and unworkable.

Legitimate concerns around the process of selection and the quality of the cadre deployed by political parties must not confuse us to think that we can do without deployment. It will cause massive mistrust between the executive authorities and the senior bureaucratic layer in the state in a country where there are low levels of trust between the economic and political elite. That spells disaster for governance and statecraft!

The complaints against deployment as a policy and practice, is a simpler and narrower one: incompetence and underperformance. It is not against the principle. The cure for this ailment is simpler too. We need to strengthen the institutional processes and criteria for selection and ensure that quality cadreship is deployed and decide which layer(s) of the bureaucracy are open for political deployment. The national policy on deployment must ensure the deployment process is transparent, rules-based and produces better public policy outcomes. Already, there are many departments, municipalities and government agencies domestically and internationally that can serve as best practice from which comparative lessons can be drawn.

Another related layer of deployment is the political office which is occupied by politicians. The deployment of public representatives to councils, parliament and the executive is the prerogative of the party in a party system. Such a practice is not as controversial as the deployment to senior bureaucratic posts. But certainly, that will change with time as the country achieves higher levels of education attainment and development. It is unthinkable that once the playing field has been completely leveled in terms of access to education; we will still have Ministers, Members of Parliament or councillors without matric or a basic higher education qualification. It is hardly the case with developed countries as we speak.

Opposition parties and other forces must be careful not to rubbish the policy and practice of deployment for political expediency. This must be accepted as a national non-partisan policy that ensures that each party or coalition that wins elections, has its best qualified cadres to lead the implementation of its policies. That will mean coherence and stability in the political-administrative interface and can have positive effects for the country.

The foregoing discussion has sought to clarify the concepts, provided an international comparative assessment of deployment policies and practices, and made suggestions for improvements in the South African context. The fact that in recent years there has been a defective implementation of deployment policies, does not mean that the policy itself is defective. Yes, all political parties must insist on the reform of the deployment regime so that both the state and party policy, gives us the best of deployed cadres in terms of selection process and quality.

The idea that the political system can do away with political deployment or have a depoliticised state or bureaucracy is not only naïve but dangerous for proper statecraft and politics. It must be opposed. Anyway, South Africa will probably be the only country in the world to carry out this naïve and dangerous adventure!

David Maimela is executive director of The Polisee Space, a progressive pan-African think-tank.