Time to take performance monitoring seriously

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Professional footballers and rugby players are today fitted with GPS devices that monitor their movements around the field. Coaches and managers analyse the data obtained to determine the distance run by individual players during a match. When this is combined with information obtained from other technology, rugby coaches know after a match exactly how many tackles each player made (or missed), how far each player carried the ball and how many metres each kicked the ball. This enables a coach to judge accurately each player’s performance and make appropriate selection changes.

The information also improves players’ performance. They can be shown exactly where their strengths lie and in what areas they can improve. The coach cannot be accused of bias if the statistics clearly illustrate a weakness.

Unfortunately there is no GPS equivalent to monitor the performance of those responsible for public service delivery in SA. Monitoring performance is an integral part of the functioning of all successful businesses. Company strategy is set by the board and senior executives are given performance contracts to ensure it is delivered. Progress in achieving the strategy is assessed and regularly reported back to the board so steps can quickly be taken when nondelivery is detected.

There is no comparable system in the government in SA, although an attempt was made to introduce one in 2009, when two green papers were published by the newly established National Planning Commission and the Performance Monitoring and Evaluation & Administration Department in the Presidency. The second of these laid down clear criteria for monitoring that services are being delivered as expected.

The envisaged process would start with all ministers signing performance contracts that clearly set their delivery requirements. Report-back meetings with the president every six months would evaluate progress in meeting these requirements and provide guidance on how to overcome obstacles to delivery. The detailed nature of the expected reporting system is illustrated by that outlined for education. The green paper suggests that the first of these six-monthly reports will indicate “how many workbooks for grades 1-7 have been distributed; what percentage of the curriculum has been covered in the 5,000 schools that should have been visited (by department inspectors) by then”. The second six-month report would report on “the extent to which the full curriculum has been covered in all schools, the distribution of the next year’s work books, and the results of a nationwide literacy/numeracy test for grade 3 and 6”. The third six-month report would “review in more detail the previous year’s performance and begin to identify any major corrective measures that are needed”.

Unfortunately, the proposals were not accepted by the government. Planning Minister Trevor Manuel was accused by the Congress of South African Trade Unions of trying to elevate his role to that of “imperial prime minister”. A bitter struggle ensued over who in the Cabinet is responsible for directing economic policy, with former trade unionist, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, emerging victorious.

A system of performance contracts has since slowly been rolled out, but it is a pale shadow of the detailed system of monitoring service delivery envisaged in the green paper. This is most unfortunate. Had these proposals been implemented, they would have provided an early warning system of things going wrong, enabling swift remedial action. The recent debacle over textbook nondelivery in Limpopo, for example, could not have gone unnoticed for such a long time.

The rejection of performance monitoring was not just an unintended casualty of political jostling for influence. It reflects a deep-seated resistance from trade unions in SA and in the government to holding individuals responsible for their actions. The major teachers’ union objects to school inspectors who would monitor teacher performance. It also frequently opposes disciplinary action against its nonperforming members. As a result, teaching standards in many schools are dragged down to the level of the weakest teachers, rather than raised up to the standards of the many teachers who are dedicated and hardworking.

The recent published National Development Plan is intended as the broad strategic framework to guide key choices and actions by the government until 2030. It again makes a strong appeal to strengthen performance monitoring in the public sector and local government. If the government is serious about meeting the plan’s delivery goals, it is critical that the recommendations on performance monitoring and assessment are swiftly implemented.

There will be resistance. It is time to stand firm against those who fear they will lose out if their poor performance is exposed.

  • Gavin Keeton is with the economics department at Rhodes University. This article was published on Business Day.