The only way strategy can be meaningful is if it is informed by, and representative of, the public interest, writes Hartley Ngoato.
When we hear the word ‘strategy’, we often cringe, roll our eyes and allow our minds to wander far away from what has come to be perceived as meaningless boardroom speak. What purposes do so-called strategies serve, we ask, other than making for intelligent sounding notes and ticking all the right boxes for meeting checklists? It’s true that strategies serve no purpose if not engaged with and implemented effectively, and this is precisely why I’m sharing my thoughts with you here. I feel there is a need for those in decision making roles in the public service to be forthcoming and open when it comes to strategic intent, as not only are members of the public entitled to access such information, they are duly required to intervene where they see fit and necessary. After all, public-sector strategies are formulated by public servants as representatives of the public, and ought to have the public interest as central and exclusive to their focus. When I was appointed as Council Chairperson of the National Arts Council (NAC) at the beginning of the year, the organisation was facing serious challenges in terms of governance, which impacted negatively on the execution of certain policies and the effective implementation of strategies. There was also misalignment with broader government policies and strategies, particularly those of the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), which highlighted to the NAC’s desperate need to adjust its course in order to give expression to its full mandate.
I feel there is a need for those in decision making roles in the public service to be forthcoming and open when it comes to strategic intent
Broadly, the NAC’s strategic realignment entails more considered and insightful marketing and arts promotion initiatives; a stronger focus on arts development, especially in terms of rethinking its current discipline-specific structure; and finding innovative and sustainable ways of building partnerships, collaborations and linkages. More specifically, as outlined in the 2017/18 Annual Performance Plan, the NAC’s strategic goals are to: strengthen the arts through focused grant funding; promote and, where possible, create equity in the arts; facilitate the development of arts organisations; develop a sustainable arts capability; increase access to markets and enable creative engagement; and increase awareness of the arts through focused advocacy. It’s easy to view these strategic intents and goals as mere words. However, I believe that, thanks to the efforts of the NAC’s Council and members of its executive, these strategic goals speak directly to our mandate, which, in turn, resonate with the DAC’s and national government’s broader strategic focus on socioeconomic development, redress and transformation. Good examples of this strategic realignment is the NAC’s participation in the DAC’s Mzansi Golden Economy strategy, which seeks to create employment by recognising the arts as South Africa’s ‘new gold’ with the potential to create thousands of jobs and accelerate economic growth; and the National Strategy for Developing an Inclusive and a Cohesive South African Society. Not only do these strategies require the NAC to be front and centre of their implementation, they call for action in fulfilling its mandate, especially those aspects of it that relate to sustainable, broad-based socioeconomic development.
Our strategies, and those we are called upon to participate in, are cross-cutting, interdisciplinary, multifaceted, inclusive and, most importantly, collaborative
These national strategies, along with the NAC’s strategic goals specifically, cannot, of course, be thought of, implemented and achieved in isolation. Our strategies, and those we are called upon to participate in, are cross-cutting, interdisciplinary, multifaceted, inclusive and, most importantly, collaborative. In essence, what the NAC’s strategic realignment and repositioning calls for is collaborative strategy execution, where strong partnerships are formed and public participation informs the most appropriate courses of action, adjustment, and monitoring and evaluation. This notion of collaborative strategy execution places the NAC and the arts in South Africa in a unique position, where they intersect education, international engagement, and commerce and investment. This highlights the potential of the arts to change and shape society in ways that are not only innovative but highly adaptive to the context in which that positive change is achieved. It is, therefore, imperative for the NAC to play the role of facilitator in a developmental discourse that transcends our typical perceptions of arts and culture and their place in society. It might seem arbitrary to suggest that what South Africa needs most – in the face of stark realities such as poverty, inequality, illiteracy, unemployment and sluggish economic growth – is for its citizens to have a strong sense of belonging in a cohesive and inclusive society, but it is precisely what is required if we are to overcome these seemingly insurmountable challenges. Part of creating this cohesion entails public engagement with government and its agencies in the development and implementation of strategies towards the achievement of goals and sustainable outcomes. I hereby urge all South Africans to engage and move strategy from the boardroom to the public sphere.