I first came across Charles Lindblom’s concept of “muddling through” in public policy and decisions in 1988 while studying urban and regional planning. Muddling through has come into vogue now that the world and its economy have been thrown into turmoil. According to this theory, evolutionary, rather than revolutionary approaches to development, especially economic development is the preferred approach. Posited in 1959 at the heyday of modernism when states controlled most levers of power, it argues that no single dominant group controls society.
Rather many interests and groups compete and at times co-operate with each other for control. This is the case for all governments across the world and was also the case in the USSR. The South African system of participatory emocracy recognises this through the system established by the constitution, legislation, and policies. The role of state in recognising and engaging with divergent interests in executing its responsibilities is well established even in several court judgements.
A large part of the success of the science of muddling through is the art of muddling through. It requires an understanding of the processes and actors of transformation. Therefore, it also informs the relationships to be built across the sectors or value chains impacted by development work. While most systemic relationships are in place, they are operationally dysfunctional. The impact of intergovernmental dysfunctionality is already experienced by all.
As municipalities have their Integrated Development Plans and budgets approved, they also move to implementation through Service Delivery Budget Implementation Plans, establishing performance targets and preparing the individual scorecards of senior managers. This will be followed by the national and provincial governments later this year. It is in this context that the theory of muddling through comes to the fore because the pandemic has led to economic turmoil, thereby rendering previous logics unworkable.
There is another problem though, the public sector is not ready to partner with other interest groups in society. If it were, the presently high levels of distrust in the democratic-era public service would not be near universal. Given that some offices are still closed, and business cannot be conducted, or social services cannot be accessed, this is not surprising and is an example of the problem.
There are three possible reasons for this unpreparedness.
Firstly, the reaction to the Minister of Finance’s additional allocation to local government is an indication of the low levels of confidence which many of the various interest groups have. The constant refrain from these groups is one of distrust, be they business interests, property interests, informal dwellers or those who game the system to extract maximum and often unentitled benefits; is that of uncooperative administrations. In muddling through, the interest groups are expected to co-operate with each other to meet common objectives, but they do not.
The only thing that unites them is their combined experiences of bad service delivery, yet they do not seem to come together on this. A single issue is manna for those who wish to unite as many people as possible. It also provides an opportunity for South Africans to move in pursuit of common solutions to collapsed services. Thus, co-operating could help us muddle through the other challenge of building new local communities.
Secondly, muddling through during a time of uncertainty requires a public administration system that is capable of at least basic management and can build on what is already there. A motor vehicle manufacturer in the Eastern Cape spent €5m to equip a warehouse to assist a provincial health department during the Covid-19 period. However, the day the facility was handed over to the officials to open for patients the next day, there were no arrangements in place for meals and it had insufficient staff in place to manage it. This is prevalent around the country and the basis of the general distrust. These distrusted institutions are tasked with managing the relationships of muddling through.
Thirdly, accountability is absent. The governance system is forward-looking while accounting for the present, but the performance management system looks backward. It looks at the reasons for non-performance instead of looking at what impact was made in any particular year. The discovery of used Covid-19 test kits on the side of a national highway and overworked primary caregivers enduring unsanitary conditions in decaying buildings shows that non-performance is condoned.
That in a participatory democratic era with funded and balanced budgets, people live amongst raw sewage, are surrounded by uncollected garbage and use unsafe public transport is an indication that public officials are allowed not to care because they are not held to account. In this breach, steps in those interest groups who use the melee to advance their own ends. The relationships enabled through this contributes towards more muddling through.
The collective experience of South Africans since 1994 has led to the current distrust in the state. The way people experience state performance underpins that distrust. It need not be like this even though we will still need to muddle through. When interest groups start to co-operate against the state they are experiencing, then the relationships which are expected to be constructive will be destructive. As public servants, we can turn the situation around. If people have lost trust in the state, imagine what will happen when people lose hope?