by David Oliphant

What really keeps a government official’s grasp so firmly around the power and trust that society has so graciously bestowed upon him? What makes his ability to hold office such a seemingly treacherous task for some and yet so easy for others? What performance indicators support their stay in the political bed and breakfast that so comfortably makes their beds and fills their stomachs morning and night (even though breakfast was the only meal in the agreement)?

You would think much of these questions would be answered logically and with as little human interference as possible. Coupled with this thinking, you feel as though the empirical social benefit achieved during their term in office would be a defining factor when considering whether their beds keep getting made and their stomachs are kept well-padded. This however doesn’t seem the case, or at least when looking at the nature of the politicians in office currently, I get the sense that the perception with which society pedestals them remains the key to their political success. Public opinion, however grey it may make certain areas, remains the yardstick year on year. A benchmark which does not speak to the nature of the performance required of these civil servants. 

At present, a government official is someone who has been elected to a position of power via the perceptions he has created around his ability to achieve the promises of his campaign. This created perception is two-fold. Firstly on an internal platform whereby he lobbies for the respect and confidence of his political party to allow him to run for office and secondly, at a much broader scale, on an external platform through which he or she engages society and purports a political position upon which society creates public opinion that either raises that individual upon the political podium or topples him or her from its summit. 
This, when properly understood by those voting for these human beings, with their human intentions and characteristic shortfalls when holding office, becomes an alarming admission of careless thought. Careless thought regarding what we deem important when considering whether this government official deserves another opportunity to make good on the promises made. Does public opinion and perception really allow for a basis upon which to make decisions with regards to who leads your country out of structural societal challenges such as poverty, gender inequality and historical discrimination? One should merely assess the factors influencing public opinion to nullify its argument as an indicator of who goes and who stays on Survivor: SA Politics. Factors such as campaign promises, marketing, branding, political song and dance and garnering the vote of the poor and easily-misled all factor into forming the perception a politician creates. Are these what we as a society require as a means for gauging who we feel should be our guide to economic and political freedom? Do these suffice as justification for their majority rules appointment? 

In my opinion, all these fall alarmingly short of the questions society should ask itself in terms of what it wants from a civil servant and, furthermore, it falls short of asking the performance-based questions that integrity-filled government officials should be asking of themselves. A more accurate use of assessment should be based on what that particular official was mandated to achieve within his given portfolio. This will deliver quantitative and qualitative inspections of the politician’s performance during his tenure in office. Rather than political perception, this offers empirical reflections on his performance, and therefore a more accurate yardstick of measuring our choice of government official. Should these performance indicators not be released to the public to help them in their decisions? Should this not be the norm? Why is this not the norm? Why do we base our choice of politician on campaign promise and not campaign achievement? How can we educate ourselves to better influence our decisions in the future? These are questions that you should ask yourself when scratching your head as to why our politicians seem so at ease on their political high-horse.

By virtue of his or her appointment; by the mere fact  that society elects a certain individual into office, a government official is positioned to serve the best interests of society through the resources that have been made available to achieve those objectives, and to source new resources for progressive change. Can this function be accurately gauged by public opinion? I have my reservations. 

‘Society means a shared life. If some, and not others, are poor, then the principles on which life is shared are at issue: society itself is in question. ‘(Halsey, 1985: xxii) – this extract from the National Development Agency’s report on aspects of poverty is a very brief look into what it means to be a government official. By serving society, you serve the problems of society. You serve its poor and you create strategies to reverse these conditions. If you serve the hungry then solutions toward sustainable food sources are your concern. If you serve healthcare then the access and supply of quality medication to all must be your focus. Should these aspects not be the basis of how your performance, and subsequently your readmission to office, is gauged? Should your ability to reduce poverty and raise the economic profile of the average South African not be the main driver of your political convoy? Except, this measure is rather public opinion? Do we not see the features of an unsustainable system? Why do we so easily accept promise over tangible progress?

Currently, the only way achieved social progress is measured is largely via the policy or legislation mandated to positively affect a certain social challenge, and less via the politician who drove the implementation of that policy to begin with. Policies such as the National Development Plan aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030 (National Development Plan 2030, National Planning Commission) – plans such as these shoulder much the blame when not implemented and regulated properly and therefore the desired result not achieved. But when these policies work, politicians jump on the positivity surrounding its achievement in attempts to garner an even stronger perception surrounding their political campaigns – in essence, the only real change in the event of a failed policy, is simply another policy and not thoughts towards a worthy politician. How can the blame for unachieved social expectation be attributed largely to policy alone and not the regulators of that policy? If poverty is your task as a politician to positively affect, then you should take professional accountability and responsibility for your policy not achieving the desired expectation and not simply suggesting a change of policy is the next best option. 

According to statistics released by Statistics South Africa during the latest living conditions survey, 2008-2009,  52.3% of the population living below R577 a month, more alarmingly, the same survey released a Gini coefficient of 0.7 (a measurement of income distribution throughout the population; 1 represents high degrees of inequality and 0 representing economic equality). Are these not the social performance indicators that government should openly distribute and educate the population on to better make decisions as to their choice of politician? How can these crucial social indicators simply be a cause for policy change and not the ushering-in of policy makers and regulators who sustainably achieve the expectations of their mandates?
Government officials are tasked with the advancement of society and must, therefore, be held accountable when that expectation, which they have created, is not achieved. The voting public must be more aware of social performance indicators that a politician is to positively affect, compare these indicators to the expectations created during political campaigning and therefore form public opinion based on empirical social progression rather than misleading public perception. Carl Levin, the United States Senator from Michigan proposes that “restoring responsibility and accountability is essential to the economic and fiscal health of our nation” – and what better way to do this than to hold our politicians, both conceptually and statistically, to the expectations they have created?
It may be a long-term ideal, but it is a possible one.