IN our drive to remove corruption from the public sector, and that drive in both the public and private sectors is essential, we sometimes forget that poor management, unimaginative management and just keeping the bureaucratic machinery ticking over without looking at results can also be a serious problem.
President Mnangagwa exposed this problem over the weekend with his comments on Zesa, Cottco and NSSA. While not ruling out dishonesty, and the rumours over NSSA were the most troublesome, he was concerned that these three entities seemed to be managed without any imagination with very probably good clean files, but zero zip and little effort to meet the expectations of those they serve.
This can be the danger in the public sector across the world, of just keeping the wheels turning, following precedent, and being so afraid of making mistakes that nothing new is attempted.
If you do little then you cannot be blamed if something goes wrong, because you followed in the footsteps of others. So there is a premium placed on safety and innovation, which can include a total rebuilding of an entity.
Of course this is not inevitable, but quite often we need a good shock to get movement. We have seen this several times in the Second Republic. One of the most spectacular changes was in public health with the onset of Covid-19, when the major threat of a public health disaster suddenly saw a whole new way of doing things brought in.
Admittedly there was budgetary support, and some serious prodding from the President who even assigned the Vice President to keep continuous pressure on.
But the professionals picked up the ball, to use a rugby metaphor, and ran with it, innovating, reorganising and generally relishing in solving problems and pushing everything forward.
Staff was increased, very modestly, but generally reorganisation and a get-moving attitude worked, and worked well. Most of us would be startled three years ago, to take just one example, to hear that the Health Ministry would find the capacity to administer more than 100 000 doses of vaccine a day without cutting back on other services. But they do that with aplomb and competence now, when people come forward.
The emergency road programme saw much the same, with resources mobilised, contractors found and priorities set.
The Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development, given the job of getting the small-scale farmers into proper production so that we could be self-sufficient in food, innovated dramatically, applying research to change farming methods and working out ways to get inputs to farmers.
In all these cases mistakes were made, such as the wrong contractors hired to fix a road despite following rules, but the attitude was we live and learn and each mistake, just like each success, meant we would improve our systems as we learned more about what worked and who could do the work.
You get this in wars, where not only armies see competent juniors suddenly rise rapidly and defeats are simply marked down as something not to be repeated while victories teach you what really works.
Again, you do not wring your hands over mistakes, but simply learn from them and push on.
The private sector, with its audit rules and the pressure of shareholders, does look at both factors, wanting both honest management and efficient and profit-making imaginative management.
The problem is always on what is expected and how errors are accepted. Sometimes management can be gung-ho, diving into new expansion and the like, and they flop and very nearly take the company with them.
On the other hand we can have people so afraid of making mistakes that they do not want to take any risks, and see their job as keeping the wheels turning, and to give them their due turning efficiently, but with little growth or imagination.
There can be risks when even honest managers are under the whip to expand, to figure out where new markets and new lines can be developed, and generally to grow the business, reduce costs and increase value.
This is one reason why major shareholders usually insist on strong-minded and knowledgeable boards of directors, especially the independent directors.
The basic idea is that the directors, as representatives of the owners, can prod the managers to come up with bright ideas, and secondly examine these bright ideas to see if the risks are acceptable and then give the go-ahead or cast a veto.
Mistakes still happen, but more often these can be used to continue building better.
Now the National Social Security Authority is under the spotlight, and the responsible minister, perhaps under Presidential prodding, has launched an inquiry.
Of course this will be looking at the allegations, which may be false, of wrongdoing. But it also has to look at why NSSA is not doing what everyone expects it to do. It is quite likely that past problems at NSSA might make management, and the board, very safety conscious, but that needs to change.
NSSA has two primary functions. The first is laid down by law, to provide a basic old age pension for those insured compulsorily through NSSA, basically the formal sector workforce, so it needs a return on its investment to provide pensions; these have been eroded by inflation and so the NSSA pension is just a sentence of abject and total poverty.
The second function is to make its investments useful as well as giving returns. So it can be a sort of sovereign wealth fund.
It’s incredible size makes the dual function quite possible since it can do a lot more than just invest in safer stocks on the stock exchange.
It can find other investments, without putting all its eggs into one basket since some investments may well be duds that provide a decent return as well as building national wealth. This is where the private sector combination of an oversight board and go-ahead management is needed, along with shareholder pressure which in this case is the people, acting through the President and the responsible minister.
So the investigation is more than a check on corruption. It needs to look at the operations, to see if management and the board are doing their jobs or if they are just trundling along doing the same old things in the same old way, and with only modest levels of efficiency, to put it politely.