ONE of the most impressive decisions of President Jacob Zuma’s administration was to set up the National Planning Commission to develop the National Development Plan (NDP). The test, however, will be how the government reorganises itself and better uses its resources to achieve the NDP’s many recommendations.

What happens with the NDP’s recommendations in the near future will determine whether South Africa peddles backwards or makes economic strides. A constraining factor to any credible government policy goal in the past few years has been the meaningless ideological contests within the African National Congress (ANC) and its alliance partners.

Ideology and party factions make it hard for bureaucrats to undertake long-term planning based on rational calculations. Freeing policy determination from party factions could improve the government’s performance. It is the opaque nature of policy planning in the government, with blurred lines between party influence and technocratic authority, that chases away talent.

Bereft of authority, bureaucrats cannot independently determine major policy options. The policy nerve centre is the tripartite alliance, which is more preoccupied with ideological posturing than what is best for the country. Senior government officials are subjected to the puppet strings of ANC mandarins in Luthuli House or the "mob-ocracy" that marks the party’s conferences. The recent pseudo-intellectual debate over the NDP between Jeremy Cronin of the South African Communist Party and Irvin Jim of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) reveals the dangers of the excessive influence of the tripartite alliance over the government’s policy direction.

Cronin and Jim represent different strands of factions within the alliance. Cronin is a party ideologue, who has decided to lend what is left of his intellectual spark to defence of the diminishing credibility of Zuma’s administration. Numsa’s Jim is frozen in the pre-1990 Marxist-workerist tradition, whose jargon ordinary workers would struggle to grasp. This makes it all the more necessary to insulate the work of the National Planning Commission from the tripartite alliance. One of the factors that brought success to the East Asian economies was policy insularity of their bureaucracies from sectoral interests.

Technocrats were fully empowered to design policy unencumbered by politicians. Meritocratic bureaucracy was the hallmark of these developmental states. While South Africa does not need to replicate Asia’s models to perform well — most were run by authoritarian regimes — there is emerging consensus that the commission could spearhead the next revolution in reforming the government and building a credible development model.

Zuma and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan hoisted the NDP as the centrepiece of government’s economic policy during the state of the nation address and the budget vote respectively. Accordingly, the commission’s work should foreground two potentially progressive changes in how policy evolves institutionally in the future.

The first concerns the internal ANC policy development processes, which has for a long time retarded South Africa’s economic progress. Instead of having government policy determined through the tortuous maze of ANC policy conferences, the commission should be the principal driver of policy development.

Its recommendations should be accepted as final after a process of consultation with a broad range of stakeholders. It should also be empowered to respond quickly to external factors that may adversely affect South Africa’s macroeconomic environment. Further, to fulfil its role, it should be granted full political authority, insulated from party factions. The minister responsible for the commission should have a status similar to that of a prime minister. This would help prevent the paralysis of bureaucracy as a result of the party’s web of factions encroaching upon it.

The second transformative development should be the dismantling of Ebrahim Patel’s Department of Economic Development. If the government is to set a new tone for developing more effective institutional capacities, greater economic policy direction and effective implementation, then departments such as Patel’s should wither away. They are a drain on state resources and allocate scarce human capital inefficiently.

Since its establishment four years ago, Patel’s department has not convincingly justified its existence. If leaders of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and its affiliates were really concerned about our slow economic progress, they would be calling for the scrapping of Patel’s department rather than wasting energy attacking the NDP.

Reorganising the government for higher performance requires more than glowing speeches about the NDP, it requires putting resources and political authority behind it.

Qobo is a member of the Midrand Group and is affiliated with the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation.