Friday 9 February 2007

Official sunsets

The Government got a little bigger recently. Not much of course, but the formation of the new Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture added another “organ of state” to the impressive list we have collected over the years.

Not that I’m against Government of course. Governments are good. Well, some of them are. There are plenty of things that Governments are best placed to do. Like catching and prosecuting criminals, like providing basic education for our kids and providing basic hospital services. And….. Errr….. What was it again?

Oh yes, taxing us so they can spend them our money on all the good things they do.

I probably sound a little cynical but as I’ve said before I don’t always think Government are best placed to actually DO things. That’s why I approve of them divesting themselves of things like telephone service provision, air transport, water and power delivery. In Botswana so far this process may have only got as far as being delivered by parastatals but it’s a good start. The next step is, of course, to hand them over to real business specialists who run them even better but these things do take a little time if they are going to be done right.

So back to the new Ministry. I actually started working on some suggestions for their new organisational structure but once I got as far as the Department of Balls and the Rackets Unit I decided to give up and let someone else do it.

Youth, Sports and Culture are all perfectly wonderful things. I was a youth once, very occasionally did some sport and on a good day I can be quite cultured. Sport is great in so many ways, youth are our future and culture is our identity. Any country that ignores youth and culture in particular is doomed to insignificance. However my concern is what exactly the Ministry has as its mandate.

The nightmare for me, the sign of absolute failure, will be the first time we see a football match sponsored by the Ministry. It’s not the job of Government to pay people to play football. It is their job, however, to encourage others to come up with the cash. Give tax breaks to companies that sponsor sports and we’ll see the sponsorship flooding in, even more than at the moment.

I think that the key objective is to foster an environment where these things are easier than before, where the Ministry oils the wheels but lets others buy the petrol and do the driving.

The creation of this new Ministry could be a great opportunity for Government to set an example of how exactly Government can be an enabler of good work rather than an agency that actually does it badly.

While thinking about this I came across a series of fascinating ideas suggested by the Adam Smith Institute in the UK. Go to their web site ( and take a look at “Around the World in 80 ideas” (if you don’t have internet access write to me and I’ll post it to you). The one that grabbed my attention was to do with “sunset legislation”. The idea is that any agency set up by government should have a fixed term. Not only should the agency be given a mandate but a timescale within which to achieve it. They did this in Texas in the 1970s and by 1999 23 state agencies had ceased to exist and had saved the state an estimated total of nearly P4 billion. Yes, that’s billions, not millions.

This can be done at the inception of an agency but also retrospectively. After all there is no shortage of candidates for “sunsetting”. The government web site currently gives links to 24 parastatal agencies and that is just the ones with web sites! It doesn’t include others like Botswana Railways, the TEC, the LEA, BEDIA, the NFTRC, NDB, BSB and so on. The list seems almost endless.

Of course I’m not suggesting that we should abolish the Ministries of Finance, Education or Health. Nor am I proposing that we close the Bureau of Standards, PPADB or the Tourism Board. Clearly they can do a lot for the country and for our international image. I can’t foresee any situation when they won’t be useful.

But why should the other agencies continue for ever? They all have something specific to do but all of them could be time limited. If you employed a plumber or an electrician to help build your house you wouldn’t expect them to stay forever. Once they had done their job you would let them move on to their next customer. So why do we see the organs of government any differently? Wouldn’t it be amazing for Government to announce that an agency has done it’s job well and is now going to close down because we no longer need it?

It’s happening already in some other countries. New Zealand has recently deregulated their telecommunications sector. What happened? Well, people can still hear radio shows, make phone calls and surf the web.

Wouldn’t it be a remarkable sign of our maturity as a country if we announced to the world that we have done certain things so well that we they no longer need governing?

This week’s stars!

  • Lesego from the Francistown Immigration Office for being welcoming with a huge smile and doing a “splendid job”.
  • Darkie, Khumo and Patricia from Equatorial Coffee at Riverwalk not only for looking after a forgotten laptop computer but for becoming private detectives and tracing it’s owner.
  • Masego at Mr Price Home at Game City for going out of her way to find an item for a customer.

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