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South Africa’s “new dawn” should be built on evidence-based policy

President Cyril Ramaphosa must prioritise evidence-based policy making. GovernmentZA/Flickr

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was elected on the promise of bringing a “new dawn” to the country. There are clear signs that he is trying to make this happen. He’s reconfigured his cabinet. He’s also made several senior public sector appointments. These are designed to instil trust in key state institutions.

And, crucially, he has reintroduced a high-level policy coordination unit, the Policy Analysis and Researcher Services, within his office.

This is an encouraging move. It suggests that, despite a flurry of radical changes in the executive, a core strength of previous administrations will not be lost: South Africa’s evidence-based approach to policy development and implementation is set to continue.

Evidence-based policy making has been a feature in South Africa for over 20 years. This approach is valuable for several reasons. First, it allows policy makers to understand which policies and programmes work in achieving their objectives. It also highlights which policies don’t and should be reviewed or stopped.

Second, the evidence-based approach to policy making has value beyond policies in individual sectors. It can also decrease wasteful expenditure by focusing on the most cost-effective programmes. For example, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has for 20 years appraised and guided the country’s spending on health interventions and technologies.

Finally, it creates enhanced accountability and transparency in the state’s decision-making processes. That’s because systems used in this approach allow policy makers to openly declare what types of information and data they used in reaching particular decisions.

Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” will require a rigorous evidence-base of what works to guide high-level policy planning and design.

Policy examples

There are several examples of successful evidence-based policy interventions in South Africa. Arguably, the most high profile example relates to the country’s fight against HIV/AIDS. A civil society group, the Treatment Action Campaign, advocated for a more evidence-based approach to the management and care of HIV/AIDS. The subsequent policy change is estimated to have prevented 1.72 million deaths between 2000 and 2014.

South Africa’s groundbreaking social grants system is another evidence-based policy success story. Its design and implementation have been rigorously evaluated in multiple studies. These have found significant positive effects on poverty reduction and women’s empowerment, among other outcomes.

While policy design has been solid, implementation has not always been successful. This is because while policy design largely happens at the national government level, implementation tends to be handled at a provincial or municipal level. These tiers must be strengthened to ensure better implementation.

Successes so far

Despite shortcomings in implementation, South Africa is a continental leader in evidence-based policy making. Its approach to evaluating and measuring policies’ effects is implemented across government departments through the National Evaluation System. The system has achieved international acclaim. Several other African countries have used it as an inspiration from which to design similar systems.

By 2018, South Africa’s system had assessed R110 billion of government expenditure. By doing this, it was able to indicate the effectiveness of various policies and programmes. This is hugely important in a climate of limited funds.

The Department of Environmental Affairs is a useful example of transparency and openness in policy making. It develops dedicated research and evidence strategies. These are used to tell stakeholders what types of information the department needs to make key policy decisions.

The Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, meanwhile, is systematically collecting data from citizens themselves regarding policy implementation and service delivery. This is done through its citizen-based monitoring programme.

Another area of evidence-based policy making where South Africa has performed well relates to training. It is important that public servants be empowered to draw on relevant information and evidence without having to outsource this critical input for policy development. The Department of Public Service and Administration runs training programmes for all public servants. This is complemented by the University of Cape Town, which offers executive training on the topic for senior policy makers.

In addition, the Department of Science and Technology (which has now been merged with the Department of Higher Education and Training) supports a range of evidence-based policy making initiatives.

All of this, along with a few other initiatives, has meant that South African civil servants are increasingly able to develop and maintain rigorous evidence-bases to inform their policy decisions.

Build and adapt

In the coming months, President Ramaphosa’s administration must maintain what has worked so far in evidence-based policy making. The focus should not shift to selected expert opinions and external consultant reports. After all, the country boasts many robust, proven systems within the civil service already.

The new administration can draw on and expand these existing efforts to build a civil service that is skilled at policy making in complex and rapidly changing local, national, and regional contexts. This is key to building a modern developmental state that’s capable of implementing the National Development Plan, a blueprint for the next decade.

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