A number of political parties, civil society organizations and think tanks have, since 2014, suggested that a technocratic transitional government is the most desirable and appropriate form of government to manage the transition from war to durable peace, to state and nation building, in South Sudan. The demand for a technocratic government have raised a number of questions in the minds of many South Sudanese. I have been asked some of these questions.
I will attempt to provide a structured, simplified and hopefully objective answers to some of the frequent questions I have been asked. The attempted answers are based on academic and none academic works done by others as well as my understanding of the context of the proposition.
- What is a technocratic government?
In this context, technocratic government is a form of government composed of ministers, including the prime minister, most or all of who are not career politicians or who are persons totally lacking in both a parliamentary and formal or known political party affiliation. Members of a technocratic government are chosen through a process that emphasizes their reputation, expertise, competence, experience, relevant skills and proven performance records in a ministry they are appointed to lead. So, political parties are not necessarily in control of, or responsible for, the appointment and the working of members of a technocratic government.
Therefore, for a government to be considered technocratic, such a government should be the one in which:
- All major governmental decisions are not made by party affiliated officials.
- Policy is not decided within political parties which then act cohesively to enact it.
- All or most of the highest officials (ministers, prime ministers) are not recruited through political party.
Usually, the mandates of a technocratic governments are clearly laid down in a constitution as is the case of Italy, Portal and Czech Republic or in some form of an agreement or community of practice. What is common, though, is a tendency to clearly circumscribe the tasks to be undertaken and the period within which such tasks should be undertaken.
Europe has the highest number of technocratic governments with about 38 technocratic governments within the period 1945 – 2018.
- What, usually, triggers a country to form a technocratic government?
Technocratic governments are in the broad sense crisis governments – that is, governments that are appointed when there is a political crisis (e.g. failure of the political elite to form government or serious political scandals etc.) or an economic crisis (e.g. economic collapse, loss of confidence in the economy by the market or investors etc.) needing solutions which cannot be provided by political parties. It is not just any crisis that triggers the demand for a technocratic government.
Usually, this has to be a crisis that creates widespread doubts about the effectiveness and the legitimacy of incumbent office holders. Which, in addition, seriously and negatively affect commonly held expectations of a political class and utterly damage and tarnish the image of the political elite, weakens the political class as such, and diminishes trust in the political class. Solving such crisis, normally, require fundamental alteration of policy positions on very crucial national issues.
The presence of other political and economic structural challenges such as crumbling political party system (e.g. Italy and Greece), or where party system has not been fully rooted or where there is toxic and rancorous political interaction among the political elites; these structural challenges could contribute to heightening a demand for technocratic government.
The reasoning here is that no major party is going to want to pay the costs of instituting painful policies and bear the responsibility for a possible monumental policy failure, on such an important national question, alone. If this is the case, then one way around this predicament is to appoint a technocratic government that is not of any party but is supported by all the parties. In this way, blame can essentially be shared, and government can do the right thing, whatever that may be.
In addition, in a country wherein the political spectrum is so fragmented and the political conversation so acrimonious, the citizens, the markets and the international partners are looking for concerted and determined answers and these can’t be provided by political figures who themselves could be the reasons for the crisis in the first place. Consequently, only technocratic governments can rise above the paralyzing political rancor to carry out the painful reforms necessary to save the country from collapse or total disintegration.
- Who is a technocrat?
There are two key elements in defining a technocratic, in this context – one is subject matter expertise and second is political affiliation.
With regard to the first elements, a technocrat is someone who possesses the requisite independence, knowledge and expertise required to deliver results efficiently, rapidly, and effectively when appointed to take up the role and position of politicians in government. For instance, to be appointed a minister of finance, the person must be an expert in economic or financial management; and to be a minister of justice, the person must be an expert in law, etc.
With respect to the second element, a technocrat is someone who, at the time of his/her appointment to government has never held public office under the banner of an existing political party; is not a formal member of any party; and is said to possess recognized non-party political expertise which is directly relevant to the role occupied in government.
One important point to make is the observation by Jean Meynaud when he said ‘when he becomes a technocrat, the expert becomes political.’ This implies two things: first that a technocrat is an expert of some description, and second that ‘the technocrat does politics.’ Thus, lack of political party affiliation should not be conflated with being apolitical.
It is not easy, though, to differentiate between politicians and technocrats. This is because, firstly, by being a technocratic, one is not necessarily neutral. Secondly, some technocrats often have close ties to political parties while some politicians operate almost as neutral technocrats. In addition, even in party based governments, experts play different roles – as hired guns at the service of politicians or as policy technicians, for example, blurring the line between technocracy and party based system of composing governments.
Maybe, two features of technocracy might help distinguish it from a party based government. The first is the method of nomination. Technocrats are not nominated by political parties or based on political membership. Second, unlike politicians, technocrats’ role in government is not or should not be motivated by the desire for power, prestige and income or by the primary objective of winning an election to public office. Technocrats’ role in government is tasks oriented and time-bound.
- How are technocrats identified and nominated?
Nomination of technocrats have been done through a number of ways including through a specialized technical group set up to identify and vet technocrats for specific positions as was the case in Iraq or through nomination by a prime minister and approval by parliament as was the case in Romania, Italy etc.
In Iraq, the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi asked political blocks in parliament and influential social figures to nominate candidates for ministerial positions. Then, the PM set up an independent committee of experts to review the names put forward. The Committee vetted and recommended candidates for the consideration of the PM. The PM selected his ministers from the list of recommended candidates and then sent his list of ministers to the parliament for approval.
In Romania, the President nominated a technocratic PM who in turn nominated a technocratic cabinet for parliamentary approval. In the process of nominating his ministers, the PM, Mr Iohannis, held two rounds of consultations with the leaders of the political parties and parliamentary groups and with representatives of civil society before making nominations of technocrats.
There are few things to note from these two examples. First, the nomination processes involve some level of independent or impartial processes and parliamentary vetting. So, while the technocrats make up mainly the executive arm of government, the political parties constituted the parliament. Thus, the check and balances between the parliament representing parties or people and the executive ensures some level of support, credibility and legitimacy.
Second, the ultimate decision of choosing the ministers for parliamentary approval rests with the head of government, mainly. In the cases of a hybrid technocratic government as was the case of the technocratic government led by Nicolae Vacaroiu in Romania between 1992 and 1994 with a split of 50-50 between technocrat and party ministers, the parties took responsibility for nominating their own candidates while the technocratic PM made his own nominations.
- What are some of the advantages of technocratic governments?
Advocates of technocratic governments believe that technocrats bring a reputational advantage both in terms of knowledge and a sense of putting national interests above party political interests.
In addition, bringing qualified and independent personalities to the cabinet is likely to strengthen the institutions of governance rather than the individuals who inhabit the posts.
Furthermore, since technocracy is rooted in the principles of logical inquiry and rational choice, technocrats are willing to carry out the painful reforms which political governments fear to implement for loss of public vote.
The fact that technocrats are subject matter experts also means that they have the advantage of speed with which they can get their feet under the desk when swift action is needed to calm tumultuous national political waters.
- What are some of the disadvantages of technocratic governments?
There are a number of criticism against technocratic governments. These include the fact that technocratic governments are not democratic, they lack legitimacy and sometimes they operate on the, partly, wrong assumptions that important problems facing countries are technical, and that, therefore, they are soluble on the basis of existing knowledge or readily attainable knowledge.
In addition, this democratic deficiency is said to bring with it legitimacy deficit. This is so because technocrats are nominated and as such might lack the political legitimacy that elected, party politicians can bring to government. This is a weak criticism because electoral legitimacy is not the only form of legitimacy. Technocratic governments could and do enjoy a different kind of legitimacy which one could label technocratic legitimacy or ‘legitimacy as impartiality’, as Pierre Rosanvallon calls it.
However, the democratic deficit criticism is a very strong one. Democratic governments operate on two important principles. The first one is political control. This means that political power is actually exercised by the people, and only by the people. The second principle is political equality. This means that in the exercise of that power, citizens are equals. So, to be an outcome of a democratic process, a public policy must reflects a process in which all citizens, situated equally, or their duly elected representatives, have participated in the decision – choice is not a democratic choice if it is not made through a democratic procedure, no matter how well it claims to track public preferences or interests.
This is not how technocratic governments, usually, operate. Technocratic governments operate on the authority of and loyalty to the traditions of reasoned, rational inquiry. To be sure, to say that technocracy is grounded in logic and reasons does not by any means imply that it is in fact more logical and reasoned. It may be grounded in as much emotion, habit, and prejudice as democratic choices. It simply means that technocrats’ main concerns with public policy, theoretically at least, are that such policies should be feasible; evaluable; benefit more than they cost; be effective in addressing some problem; be reasonably certain of success; be well grounded in evidence; and be amenable to monitoring and evaluation. So, technocrats, compared to politicians, careless about the broader political implications of a policy once convinced that such a policy is right and sound.
There is another concern. Technocracy could undermine healthy opposition which is crucial to the well-functioning of government. Technocratic governments and their claim to neutrality and ‘knowing best’ could delegitimize the sort of healthy opposition and make all criticism look irresponsible—or populist.in fact instead of healthy opposition, technocrats could be or be bogged down by technical debates.
Another criticism is that technocrats are not neutral though they would want us to believe so. According to this critics, political neutrality could just be Trojan horses for a certain economic view and that lurking in the spread sheets of technocrats, is ideology or party affiliation. This criticism is difficult to refute, if what it is aiming at is to bring out the fact that there is no such thing as neutral knowledge, or – to bring this to Foucauldian extremes -there is no such a thing as ‘genuine technical knowledge’
- Is technocratic government desirable and feasible in South Sudan?
From a momentous crisis point of view, South Sudan is a right candidate for a technocratic government. The country is at war that threatens its very existence. The deep seated mistrust among political elites, the chronic acrimonious and rancorous political interaction among political actors, poor political visions, lack of leadership, poor governance experience and the failure to form an inclusive government based on party system, among other challenges, all make a strong case for technocracy.
However, to success, technocracy must enjoy the support of all the major parties. Imposition of a technocratic government is likely to increase its chances of failure. At the moment, a number of the parties to the talks do not support a technocratic government. The main civil society forum around the peace process has cacophonic position on technocracy. The international community and other partners have not expressed a firm position for or against a technocratic government, at least, publicly.
In addition, most of the countries that have experienced technocratic governments so far – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Romania in Europe have functional institutions and systems. Institutions and systems are important to the proper functioning of technocratic governments. This is not to say that technocratic governments do not work in countries with poor or non-existence institutions and systems to create those missing institutions and systems. Iraq experimentation with technocracy was precisely to address weak institutions, poor systems, endemic corruption and the symbiotic relations between poor institutional framework and endemic corruption. I am mentioning the issue to point out that South Sudan will present a very unique context for such experimentation.
- If technocratic government is desirable in South Sudan, how could it look like?
The most feasible way, in my opinion, will be to secure an agreement to establish a technocratic government on the negotiating table. Such a technocratic government could have a technocratic Prime Minister and a technocratic cabinet at national and state levels. The parties to such an agreement could set up a vetting committee of independent experts, faith based entities and civil society organizations to identify and vet the PM and her or his ministers. In addition, the party could nominate their members to the parliament to provide the final vetting, approval and support for the composition and program of the technocratic government.
The remit of such a transitional government must be limited to facilitating:
- a national conversation leading to a permanent constitution making based on prior agreed constitutional principles,
- the operationalization of the new constitutions,
- truth, healing, justice and reconciliation,
- the establishment of a new security sector and an inclusive civil service and organization of a national election.
It must be stated that anyone who participates in the technocratic government forfeits the rights to be part of the government that immediately follows the transitional period.