Cabinet report cards

File photo: INLSA

The annual rituals of South Africa are: i) the festive season’s road traffic accidents and deaths; ii) the national ‘matric’ pass rates; iii) the ANC’s January 8th Statement and the Cabinet Report Card. The majority of South African take great interest in the annual Cabinet Report Cards. In this article, I focus on a deeper analysis of the 2017 Cabinet Report Cards.

The flawed methodology used in the current assessment systems; the lack of objectivity; the absence of correlation between two systems of similar origins and the obvious biased scores, suggested that the Cabinet Score Cards do not measure Cabinet Ministerial performance, but instead more likely horoscopically describes biases, stereotypes and many ‘ghosts’ of our past history using historically trusted grades. However, these falsely derived grades are presented as truths. The Cabinet Report Card borders on the abuse of science possibly for political ends.

Over the years and early in the dawn of our democracy, the Mail & Guardian developed and provided an annual Cabinet Report Card system, to assess, measure and score the performance of each individual cabinet minister and provided a qualitative commentary. Over time the Cabinet Report Card has become the Gold Standard of assessing our cabinet Ministers and a ‘barometer of government performance’. More importantly the nation and the ‘poor’ Cabinet Ministers read these grades religiously and some are terrified or even traumatized by the outcomes to the same extent that examination school reports did to us as students.

However, the scientific basis of what is being measured or how it is being measured or computed has remained elusive and not transparent and even more mysterious are the qualifications, competencies or expertise of the assessors who do these important assessments and provide the grades. So where do the assessors derive their authority from and how are they selected to be truly representative of our society?

All ministers of the cabinet sign annual performance contracts with the President. These contracts specify the Key Performance Areas (KPAs) of government priority, focus and assessment for the year. These are the official KPAs. However, these official KPAs are certainly not what the Cabinet Report Cards measure.

So, which KPAs are being assessed by these systems; how and when these are selected is not transparent. As South Africans, we await to receive subjective performance grades made objective through simple graded scores annually; the basis and authority of which we have no clue and have not interrogated. Despite these, the assessors confidently and unashamedly continue to parade these scores ranging from A to F as ‘the most reliable barometers of government performance’.

Fortunately, most South Africans are able to translate these grades into understandable interpretations i.e. A means outstanding or a distinction and F means total failure, which is irredeemable. A minister who scores an A is outstanding, trustworthy and one who scores an F is incompetent and deserves to be ‘relieved of her/his responsibilities’. Because of impact on the reputation, the wellbeing, the national character and the integrity of our most important public servants, one would have thought greater care and attention should have been given to the methodology used.

Being the most unequal society globally (Gini Co-efficient of 0.68), with a long history of colonial apartheid oppression, stereotypes and existent evolving and adapting racism, greater care and attention should have been paid to the method used for performance assessment/scoring. Our media is full of such stereotypes as ‘blacks are inferior; blacks are lazy; blacks are corrupt; blacks are incompetent and the opposite is true for whites. So, a system of assessment of such immense importance and in such a complex and fractured society, needs to be scientifically squeaky clean and beyond reproach.

We may pretend to assess ‘government performances’ as claimed by the scores, while in reality and subtly and unintentionally we are measuring ‘biases, stereotypes, the ‘ghosts’ of our past’ and how well colonized we are. We cannot pretend to be oblivious that the government whose performances are being scored is a ‘black government’ driving transformation in a highly racialised society.

Through this process of annual Cabinet Report Cards and without questioning the basis and robustness of the methodology, perceptions, stereotypes, subjective indicators or even gossips are easily and falsely presented and given accuracy, objectivity and a measure of scientific truth. Indeed, in this scenario the old adage that ‘perceptions’ become ‘reality’ or ‘the more a lie is repeated many times, the more it begins to assume a measure of truth’ become realized. Through this process as South Africans we are able to ‘dress mutton as lamb’. These Cabinet Report Card has been with us for 20 years and repeated annually

Not to be outdone, and not surprising, the DA has quickly adopted this approach to provide an annual Cabinet Report Card. Even less transparent are the selected KPAs, the people and competencies of those who do the assessment and the scoring for the main opposition party.

On 4th December 2017, the leader of the DA, Mr. Musi Maimane announced ‘Government ‘fails’ in DA’s  2017 Report card; ‘an appraisal of the ANC national government’s performance over the past year’. The Report Card had analyzed and scored the performances of 37 National Cabinet Ministers

On the 21st December 2017, the Mail & Guardian newspaper published its annual Cabinet Report Card, ‘Leaders and Losers’. It also analysed the same 37 Cabinet ministers, and scored their respective performances

In short both systems score government performance on poor scientific basis, rigour and validity. There is very poor correlation between the scores of the two systems that purport to assess and to measure the performance in the same person over the same period i.e. ministerial performance.

For every cabinet minister assessed, the DA scores were worse than those of the Mail & Guardian. There is no single instance where the DA score is higher or better than the M & G score. This is surely concerning and troubling

Only 2 (5.4%) Ministers out of 37 in the DA system perform above the acceptable norm of a ‘C’ compared to the 14 (37.83%) in the M & G scoring system. The score distribution in the DAs system is not only narrow but was also heavily biased towards the scores of the very poorest performances, a total of 30 (E & Fs grades) versus 14 (E & Fs grades) in the M & G scores; 81.1% vs 37.8% very poor Cabinet performers. The distribution of scoring in the M & G system seemed reasonably fair and normal within each category and each category represented compared to the DA’s scoring system

However, despite these differences the two scoring systems agree that the majority of Cabinet Ministers perform poorly i.e. 94.6 % vs 62.2%; that in both systems 12 ministers are scored similarly in the worst performing categories i.e. below C; and finally, in 12 Ministers the scores are not only totally different but were also irreconcilable and devoid of logic or rationale. However, these agreements or disagreement become meaningless as the basis of scoring is flawed.

Take and compare the grades of ministers Pandor, Motsoaledi, Ramaphosa, Zulu, Nkoana-Mashabane and Kubayi in the two systems; C, F, E, E, E, F versus A, B, B, C, C, C respectively in the DA vs the M & G system. The score variations make it inconceivable that we are assessing or grading the same indicators for each of these Cabinet Ministers. Assuming the M & G system is the original and thus more matured and fairer, it makes the DA scoring system even more irrational and more about political point scoring than about genuine assessment or objective scoring.

One can safely conclude that both systems lack objectivity and are obsolete, which raises the question of the intended purposes for these scoring systems.  Both systems appear to be proxies for ‘political point scoring, racism and a relic of colonial superiority’.

If they are so entrenched; so popularised and yet so flawed, why are we paying so much attention to them and some of our poor Cabinet Ministers so terrified by such falsehoods? It is quite possible the young black government was fearful to question and challenge such an assessment system early on in our democracy. One can only wonder how this fear contributed to ‘sunset’ clauses; the failure to address the land question and the failure to fundamentally transform the higher education system at Codesa. These Cabinet Report Card systems are meant to measure something else invisible but are masquerading as measurements of ‘government performance’

The mushrooming of different measurement systems is essential and bodes well for our growing democracy. As South Africans, we are rightly deserving of transparent accountability especially of our public officials and our government. Good and reliable measurement systems build trust, build reputation, build investor confidence, allow for comparisons to be made over time within society and the international community. These systems project our image much better. As South Africans, we can do better and deserve to do better than the current hoax Cabinet Report Card System. These systems need to be reviewed and completely overhauled, lest they undermine the national project of social cohesion and of building a non-racial, nonsexist and equitable society

Professor Malegapuru Makgoba is a South African immunologist, physician, public health advocate, a pioneer in higher education transformation, academic and former Vice-Chancellor & Principal of the University of KwaZulu-Natal