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why PUBLIC POLICY REPORTING so often goes horribly wrong ...

On 10 February, in his State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa spelled out ‘fundamental changes to the structure of the electricity sector’ already under way – announcing that, ‘to regulate … these reforms, Cabinet ... (had) approved amendments to the Electricity Regulation Act, 2006 … for public comment’. At which point News24’s Carol Paton reported that these amendments had been gazetted in the form of ‘regulations’ on which stakeholders had 30 days to make input. Which is presumably what thousands of News24 readers continue to believe ... And wrongly so.

In fact, the President was referring to a draft Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill proposing measures intended to ‘broaden the national regulatory framework for … (SA’s) electricity supply industry’ – as a media statement on Cabinet’s most recent meeting has since confirmed. Dated 11 February, the statement appeared to suggest that the draft Bill had yet to be gazetted, but that it would be posted soon on the Department of Mineral & Energy Resources website. With that in mind, a link to the site was provided.

The department operates two websites. One focuses on mineral resources; the other on energy. The link included in the post-Cabinet meeting statement takes readers to the mineral resources site, where a draft Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill doesn’t really belong and can’t be found anyway, at least to the naked eye. Neither is there any obvious sign of the elusive document on the other site, where one would have expected to find it. Perhaps it’s hidden away in a dark corner known only to those familiar with navigating their way around national government websites – which would be missing the point, because this is a public consultation process for ordinary South Africans.

Whatever the case, at the time of these announcements the eGazette had been offline for two weeks. And it’s still offline. So where, do tell, is this important piece of proposed new legislation on which time to comment is running rapidly out?

As luck would have it, within 24 hours Engineering News had come to the rescue by publishing an article with a link to the draft amendment Bill and its covering Government Gazette notice calling for stakeholder input.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) had managed to secure a copy of the draft Bill, but not the Government Gazette on the PMG website – followed by a discussion document reviewing government policy on electricity pricing.

But what a run around – compounded by the misleading News24 article.

Imagine how much easier accessing the document would have been if:

 

  • the Presidency and the Department of Mineral & Energy Resources had communicated with each other

  • the draft Bill had been simultaneously posted on both departmental sites, immediately following the State of the Nation Address

  • the media and PMG had been notified and provided with copies of the Government Gazette notice and the draft Bill, and

  • both documents had been posted on the national government website, under ‘documents’ and ‘latest’ (which is what happens when the eGazette is functioning. But it’s not).

If an explanatory memorandum on the draft Bill’s objects had been provided, that would have been the cherry on the top. Speaking of which, Department of Mineral & Energy Resources Director-General Thabo Mokoena would do well to visit the National Treasury website for pointers. There, whenever public policy changes or draft legislation are released for comment, stakeholders can find:

 

  • the proposals themselves

  • an accompanying media statement, and

  • a raft of supplementary documents providing context to what’s envisaged.

 

And to make sure nothing goes wrong, the media statement is published on the national government website, under ‘newsroom’ and ‘latest’.

Which is how to go about facilitating public participation in its pre-parliamentary consultation phase.

Instead, a fiasco was made of what could (and should) have been a slick public relations exercise demonstrating that President Cyril Ramphosa’s government is capable of getting things done.

Ironically, in his State of the Nation Address the President referred to a ‘framework for the professionalisation of the public service’, which he expects to be finalised ‘soon’. According to the President, it will include ‘tighter measures for (the) recruitment of public servants, continuous professional development through the National School of Government, and partnerships between state bodies, professional associations and universities’. Hope springs eternal ...