Friday 18 June 2021
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The reputation cost of ill-considered public policies

Namibians have of late been observing public policy pronouncements that would be described as embarrassing in functional systems. I will cite two examples to argue why these pronouncements are embarrassing. The examples are the registration exemption of Zimbabwean nationals from professional registration requirements and pronouncements on free and compulsory education.

It is important to define public policy, as this might help the readers to contextualise my reasoning. John Mugabe defines public policy as a course of action or actions. It is about what a government decides to do or what not to do.
This definition advances that public policy is not always about doing something. A government can, as a policy choice, decide not to do something about a problem. Against this background, scholars such Professor Jonathan Jansen have developed the theory of political symbolism as a lens through which to analyse and understand the distance between policy ideals and practical outcomes.  Why is it that despite multiplicities of public policies, there seem to be little evidence to show that they have improved conditions for the better? Political symbolism provides the explanation and posits that such policies are developed not to be implemented, but rather for symbolic reasons.

The major problem in Namibia is not policy implementation per se.  Instead, it is policy conceptual clarity and choices government opts for. Returning to the two examples, I will insist that organs of state, including administrative officials should at all times be conscious that the Republic of Namibia is founded upon the principles of the rule of law and justice for all. These principles denote that no one is above the law. Against this backdrop, it is inconceivable that a state with all expertise at her disposal would sign an internal agreement that would be construed to be inconsistent with the spirit of the constitution and relevant laws. How does a state enter an agreement that ignores professional registration procedures?
Why should relevant Namibian professional comply, if others are not expected to adhere with such requirements? It is critical to explain that a practice becomes a policy.  At the core of this debacle are questions of reputation, policy predictability and trustworthiness of the Namibian state. Trust and policy predictability are key ingredients of international engagements consistent with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. In the Zimbabwean case, the matter has become a media affair.  States do not normally conduct their interstate relations through the media.

Zimbabwe has signed an agreement upon the request of Namibia. The conditions of the secondment ought to have been subjects of negotiations.  Namibia has an Attorney-General who is the Principal Legal Advisor to the President and Government. Our country has a Public Service Commission to advise the President on the appointment of suitable persons to specified categories of employment in the public service.
Was this agreement reviewed by these constitutional bodies before it was signed to ensure policy thoroughness? I assert that Namibia has made a mistake in this matter.
The explanations could be a result of the culture of entitlement and lack of consequences for non-performance.  Furthermore, it is a symptom of a disjoined and dysfunctional system. In functional systems, the officials who have negotiated a flawed agreement and thus have embarrassed the state would have faced consequences for their actions. The Namibian government should accept responsibility for the embarrassment and learn future lessons from it. Citizens should hold their government accountable instead of implicating the Zimbabwean state or nationals.
Further, the state should not continue to operate with silo mentalities, but instead function as a unit managed by a bureaucracy appointment on merit with the responsibility to protect the interests of the state and citizens. The second example of an ill-considered policy is the implementation of free and compulsory education.

I want to state for the record that no one in his or her right mind will oppose the introduction of free education.  To remind ourselves, Article 20(2) of the Constitution states “Primary education shall be compulsory and the State shall provide reasonable facilities to render effective this right to every resigned within Namibia, by establishing and maintaining State schools at which primary education will be provided free of charge.”
The contestation is not about free education. It is about whether a thorough developed implementation strategy exists to give practical effect to the ideals of free education. Secondly, it is about whether subsequent education laws and policies have conceptually defined the meanings of free and compulsory education and reasonable facilities.

According to my knowledge, a free education implementation strategy does not exist. An ambiguous public policy invites personal interpretations and confusions. We are almost in a state of educational policy confusion.  Evidence elsewhere suggests that implementation of free education without a credible implementation strategy could result in unintended negative outcomes.  A free and compulsory education strategy should provide conceptual clarity on what free and compulsory education means, provide data on unit cost per learner to provide equitable quality free education and a sustainability funding plan.

It does not augur well for a policy to have a lifespan of  one year. This suggests an ill-considered policy.  John Mugabe notes that features of a good public policy include knowledge or evidence-based foundation, availability of skills, institutions, infrastructure, finances and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. As we might recall, Citizen Nahas Angula asked the following fundamental question in the National Assembly during the introduction of free secondary education: “Why should I not contribute to the education of my child, if I can afford it?”
One year after the introduction of free secondary education, we are begging parents to make contributions. The relevant ministry is also unilaterally altering legally binding contracts to reduce subsidies to private schools.
At stake in both cases is state reputation cost and policy credibility.  My advice would be, go back to the basics and deal with fundamental shortcomings in our policy development processes and not symptoms.

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