Last October, a new business initiative to improve socio-economic development and service delivery in the province was launched. Its advent is bound to make some people wonder if we really need another initiative like this. Will it not merely mean more meetings with cool agendas, great buzzwords and terrific goals, but no results?
Dubbed the Business Leadership Platform (BLP), the initiative seeks to give business in the Western Cape a much-needed voice in the provincial government and in that alone, it offers something new. Currently, there is no organisation or association in the country that explicitly enables business participation in the public sector. There is also a lot of ambivalence in government towards business, as was recently pointed out in an article by veteran journalist Allister Sparks.
Writing in Business Day, Sparks said there is much diversity in the South African business world – which encompasses big, medium and small organisations – but that it is often viewed by, especially leftist branches of government, as a single entity of ruthless capitalists interested only in making money. Many business owners are loathe to challenge or criticise government officials for fear of running the risk of losing tenders or getting stuck in loads of red tape when they want to conduct business.
Sparks blames the abundance of bureaucracy in the public sector for scaring off foreign investors while hampering local entrepreneurs. He called for businesspeople to speak up – individually or in groups – to address the factors that encumber economic growth in the country, specifically calling on businesspeople to be more proactive in stating what they require to enable them to contribute more meaningfully.
This is precisely what the Business Leadership Platform sets out to achieve. More than 140 different business-related associations and organisations have been identified across various categories and groups, which include tourism bodies, industry leaders, chambers of commerce and industry, as well as business partnerships and business schools – all of which have become part of the BLP.
The BLP is an initiative of the Economic Development Partnership (EDP), in partnership with Business Western Cape, the Western Cape Government and the City of Cape Town and unites key actors behind a common economic vision. It has as its core mission the clearing of administrative logjams.
Not unlike household blockages, administrative blockages are messy and difficult to clear up.
The main challenge is that there is currently a ‘common-sense regime’ in the public sector that is focused too much on matching invoices to payments, compliance, and monitoring and evaluating, rather than on the goals of increasing opportunities for businesses to grow and citizens to be employable and employed.
The fact that the public sector is so administratively driven is one of the biggest obstacles to service delivery. It is too much about stamps and signatures and too little about creative thinking and problem solving. It is not so much a question of getting the hands dirty as applying minds in a different way and letting the creative juices flow.
The BLP offers a new set of organising principles that have the potential to get the public sector out of the admin trap that it finds itself in. By taking a design thinking approach – a concept that gained traction in Cape Town during 2014, during the city’s tenure as World Design Capital – it hopes to unleash creative energy to envision new solutions.
Design thinking is more inclusive and empathetic in its approach and therefore is ideally suited to solving challenging situations where the stakeholders are divergent. It also has a proven track record when it comes to incorporating conflicting opinions and broadening traditional ways of thinking. It is especially helpful in breaking down communication barriers and helping creative solutions emerge in previously deadlocked situations.
It helps people to really question the fundamental assumptions ingrained in institutional processes that drive delivery to affect social and economic conditions. It also provides a robust framework with which to think about how to change conditions and start to address complex problems.
Perhaps the essential value of design thinking lies in its ability to change mindsets and behaviour – which is fundamental in changing systems.
The BLP will create an inclusive regional forum that will strengthen the voice of business and sustain a structured relationship between government and business. It will keep business leaders and associations connected and informed and will convene a regular business leadership-government engagement forum. It will focus on common strategic agendas and conduct surveys of business opinion to enhance public policy processes.
At its root, the BLP is an innovative structure that has the potential to transform the current model of organising that our public sector is using in its efforts to deliver socio-economic growth. One could argue that its chief achievement will be to get public servants to see ‘what could be true’ rather than being paralysed by what is currently held to be true.