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Scientific advice, adaptive management, and public policy

Crafting scientifically enlightened management interventions that address environmental and socioeconomic challenges can be treacherous terrain. To do both, it sometimes isn't enough to simply lay the evidence before the public in a dispassionate way.

At times, one has to assume the role of an advocate and use the tricks of the trade. But it is well-advised to maintain respectable distance from professional advocates who, like some politicians, are paid to exercise their passion and persuasion on behalf of clients or courses in which they may not privately believe. Rather, science-based discourse, procedure, and delivery offers tremendous potential in repositioning adaptive management as a useful framework in guiding public policy design, implementation, and review in Botswana and the developing world.

Scientific and technological advances are the bedrock for socio-economic development and progress. Science is a venerable way of knowledge acquisition and application. In the mainstream mode, science is a formalised protocol of accumulating factual knowledge and understanding of practical natural phenomena.

Properly pursued, the process seeks sequential observations, controlled experiments, and staged management actions that distinguish among alternative possibilities, progressively zeroing in on a better understanding of the phenomenon or problem under interrogation. We may think of understanding as what we use in order to adequately apply our wisdom and our knowledge in guiding our actions. Understanding is more often used to try to alter an outcome than to repeat or perpetuate it.

That’s why psychologists and psychiatrists try to understand the minds of poachers, passion killers, murderers, and rapists, why social historians try to understand tribalism and genocide, and why medics try to understand the causes of disease. In their respective fields, these professionals do not seek to justify poaching, passion killings, murder, rape, genocide and illness. Instead, they seek to use their understanding of an intricate train of causes so as to modify or interrupt the chain. Management, governance, and administration should thrive on similar principles and approaches.  

As benevolent custodians of the truth, scientists are supposed to reinforce existing paradigms of management by increasing the precision and efficiency of data collection rather than merely testing questions that may overturn policy. Scientists accumulate knowledge that may be called upon for policy formulation; they should have the various pieces ready if needed.

Scientists must announce crises through alerting society of the failures and dangers of past, perceived, and existing policy on challenges such as biodiversity changes, human-wildlife conflict, HIV/AIDS, alcohol use and abuse, poverty alleviation and eradication, deteriorating moral fabric, etc. Scientists should systematically interrogate and integrate the requisite knowledge, if and when solicited so as to advise policy reform. They should also use their knowledge and experience to contribute towards new, evidence- or science-based policy with the intention of better and adaptive management.

Generally, adaptive management incorporates research into strategic action. Specifically, it is the integration of design, management, and monitoring to systematically test assumptions in order to adapt and learn from coordinated experience.  Adaptive management is good management, but not all good management is adaptive management. Adaptive management requires common sense, but that is not a licence to just try whatever crosses, or appeals to, the mind.

Instead, adaptive management requires a scientific approach to challenges through testing hypotheses and systematically trying different actions to achieve a desired outcome. It is not however, a random trial-and-error process as reported in lay terminology. Instead, it first involves conceptualising the problem at hand, then developing a specific set of testable hypotheses carefully crafted from existing theory, aligned with what actions might be undertaken to explain those phenomena.

These actions are then implemented and results thereof actually rigorously monitored to gauge how they compare with predictions. The key here is to develop an understanding of not only which actions work and which do not, but also how and why. Adaptation is about taking action to improve delivery based on the results of past or existing monitoring regimes. If actions do not achieve the expected results, the likelihood is that; a) actions were poorly executed, b) conditions of application have changed, c) monitoring was sloppy, or d) some other permutation of the above.

But the sad reality in Botswana is that we are having some policies and legislation supported by the grossest of superstitions, suspicions, and other degrees and expressions of ignorance and religiosity, especially those attempts reportedly aimed at correcting environmental problems and societal discord. And it is some celebrated professionals, experts, and consultants who are supplying government and the public with latently terminal advice on how to behave into the future.

It becomes worrisome when experts deliberately manipulate and dupe government and the public that misinformation, mediocrity, dishonesty, deceit, and coercion are sustainable premises for successful policy delivery.  We need formal peer review that helps reassure the consuming public that the policies advanced are founded on sound scientific footing. Once we abandon strict adherence to what science tells us, once we start arranging the truth in media briefings and other consultative fora, then anything is possible.

In one context, we might accomplish some mobilization against some environmental and socioeconomic challenges, but in another context, we court disaster. The danger is always there, if we subvert science to extreme partisan and business ends. As humans, scientists are not quite impartial, but science should be impartial. That is why it is so important for the future of science in Botswana that the line between what science can say with certainty, and what it cannot, be drawn clearly and defended.

In one sense, the practice is that, with a trendy name and purported objective, with a strong policy position and an impassioned and aggressive public campaign, nobody will dare to criticize the science, and in short order, a terminally weak policy thesis will be masqueraded as scientific gospel. Thereafter, any criticism becomes beside the point.  Such is how bad science is used at times to promote what some people would consider good policy. Uncertainties in scientific evidence are glossed over in the unseemly rush for an overarching policy, and for consultants to invariably propose and support policy by delivering findings that are desired by the patron or commissioning institution.

Next, there is organised marginalisation, discrimination, and isolation of those scientists who sound technical and procedural deficiencies to policy formulation and review, and the characterization of those scientists as “academics”, “outsiders”, and "sceptics" – suspect individuals with suspect motives, reactionaries, or simply anti-establishment nutcases. In short order, debate ends, even though citizen scientists are uncomfortable about how scientific protocols are being trampled. Is this what science has become? Hopefullynot. But this is what it will become, unless there is a concerted effort by citizen scientists to reconcile science and public policy, and also aggressively separate science from politics. Scientists best serve public policy by living within the ethics of science, not those of politics.

The connection between scientific evidence and public policy has regrettably become elusively elastic in Botswana. Several hypotheses help explain this observation; a) the complacency of the citizen scientific profession, b) the lack of good science education among the public; c) the rise of specialized advocacy groups which have been enormously effective in getting publicity and shaping policy, and d) because of civil society’s failure as independent assessors of evidence.

When distinguished institutions no longer differentiate between factual content and institutional opinion, but rather mix both freely in press statements and workshops, then who will hold anyone to a higher standard? We should strive for broad education about science, and about its methods and uncertainties. But we should do this precisely because it will promote wide and engaged debate, and airing of worries and precautions, not under any delusion that such a scientifically literate society will be a passive consumer.

Especially in the early stages, questioning, dissent, and dissident opinion are hugely useful. It is important that consensus is not reached too early least it inhibits important lines of investigation. That initial resistance or opposition is a fundamental characteristic of human nature. It is quite valid because it accords the progenitors and the public critical opportunity to reconsider and interrogate procedures and the prevailing evidence. Sharing ignorance is important in gaining confidence from the public.

True to its practical expression, science will provide no miracles, but science can do a lot to ameliorate the dislocations that are gaining currency in Botswana as it has delivered for the developed world. While much of science deals with things that are indeed well understood, many of the topics that engage public attention in Botswana lie at or beyond the frontiers of what is currently known.

Regrettably, the fair majority of current science advice to government policy-makers is routine, grounded on tired and fairly plodded areas of science. Here, public expectations – “tell us the facts” are the order of the day. In this instance, it is necessary to understand that science is as much – or more – a way of asking illuminating questions, as it is a collection of tidy and certain answers. There are areas of science where, for all practical purposes, certain answers can be given, while uncertainty looms in other areas. This needs to be taken in sobriety.

The key to credibility lies in soliciting inputs from a wide range of stakeholders and in being open and sincere about the process, institutions, and people involved. This amounts to a matter of accountability: both the policy-makers and the advisers have to be accountable – ultimately to the public – for the advice given and the use made of it. What is clear, however, is that on environmental and socio-economic challenges, science and policy have become inextricably mixed to the point where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to separate them out.

The primary role of the scientist is not to determine which risks are worth taking, or deciding what choices we should take, but the scientist must be involved in indicating what the possible choices, constraints, and possibilities are. Policy-makers have to know what they can expect from scientific advisers. There is much that science does not know, otherwise research would be redundant! Policy issues arise in areas of scientific ignorance as well as scientific knowledge.

But the uncertainty and controversy that can characterise science at the limits of current knowledge do not mean that science has nothing to contribute or that all ‘scientific’ opinions are equally plausible. Although there will be cases where the science is inconclusive and experts agree only that further research is needed, established scientific knowledge should often be able to set boundaries to the uncertainty and thus provide a guide to advised and reserved action.

Science is about exploring and discovering new things rather than deciding how, or even if, these things should be used. It is the role of society as a whole to decide how the new knowledge discovered by science should be used. In the end, the debates on scientific matters are not just about science. They involve not just our rational minds but also aspirations, emotions, and experiences of the greater public.

Kabajan Sam KAUNDA is a Nature Detective: People & Wildlife
Senior Lecturer & Research Coordinator: Wildlife Ecology & Conservation 
Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Botswana

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Opinions

Can we cure ourselves from the cancer of corruption?

28th October 2020
DCEC DIRECTOR: Tymon Katholo

Bokani Lisa Motsu

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” Carl Sagan

Corruption is a heavy price to pay. The clean ones pay and suffer at the mercy of people who cannot have enough. They always want to eat and eat so selfishly like a bunch of ugly masked shrews. I hope God forgives me for ridiculing his creatures, but that mammal is so greedy. But corruption is not the new kid on the block, because it has always been everywhere.

This of course begs the question, why that is so? The common answer was and still is – abuse and misuse of power by those in power and weak institutions, disempowered to control the leaders. In 1996, the then President of The World Bank, James D. Wolfensohn named the ‘C-Word’ for the first time during an annual meeting of the Bretton Woods Institutions. A global fight against corruption started. Transparency International began its work. Internal and external audits mushroomed; commissions of inquiry followed and ever convoluted public tender procedures have become a bureaucratic nightmare to the private sector, trying to fight red tape.

The result is sobering corruption today is worse than it was 25 years ago. There is no denying that strong institutions help, but how does it come that in the annual Transparency International Ranking the same group of countries tend to be on the top while another group of countries, many African among them, tend to be on the bottom? Before one jumps to simple and seductive conclusions let us step back a moment.

Wolfensohn called corruption a cancer that destroys economies like a cancer destroys a body. A cancer is, simplified, good cells in a body gone bad, taking control of more and more good cells until the entire body is contaminated and eventually dies. So, let us look at the good cells of society first: they are family ties, clan and tribe affiliation, group cohesion, loyalty, empathy, reciprocity.

Most ordinary people like the reader of these lines or myself would claim to share such values. Once we ordinary people must make decisions, these good cells kick in: why should I hire a Mrs. Unknown, if I can hire my niece whose strengths and weaknesses I know? If I hire the niece, she will owe me and support my objectives.

Why should I purchase office furniture from that unknown company if I know that my friend’s business has good quality stuff? If I buy from him, he will make an extra effort to deliver his best and provide quality after sales service? So, why go through a convoluted tender process with uncertain outcome? In the unlikely case my friend does not perform as expected, I have many informal means to make him deliver, rather than going through a lengthy legal proceeding?

This sounds like common sense and natural and our private lives do work mostly that way and mostly quite well.

The problem is scale. Scale of power, scale of potential gains, scale of temptations, scale of risk. And who among us could throw the first stone were we in positions of power and claim not to succumb to the temptations of scale? Like in a body, cancer cells start growing out of proportion.

So, before we call out for new leaders – experience shows they are rarely better than the old ones – we need to look at ourselves first. But how easy is that? If I were the niece who gets the job through nepotism, why should I be overly critical? If I got a big furniture contract from a friend, why should I spill the beans? What right do I have to assume that, if I were a president or a minister or a corporate chief procurement officer I would not be tempted?

This is where we need to learn. What is useful, quick, efficient, and effective within a family or within a clan or a small community can become counterproductive and costly and destructive at larger corporate or national scale. Our empathy with small scale reciprocity easily permeates into complacency and complicity with large scale corruption and into an acquiescence with weak institutions to control it.

Our institutions can only be as strong as we wish them to be.

I was probably around ten years old and have always been that keen enthusiastic child that also liked to sing the favourite line of, ‘the world will become a better place.’  I would literally stand in front of a mirror and use my mom’s torch as a mic and sing along Michael Jackson’s hit song, ‘We are the world.’

Despite my horrible voice, I still believed in the message.  Few years later, my annoyance towards the world’s corrupt system wonders whether I was just too naïve. Few years later and I am still in doubt so as to whether I should go on blabbing that same old boring line. ‘The world is going to be a better place.’ The question is, when?

The answer is – as always: now.

This is pessimistic if not fatalistic – I challenge Sagan’s outlook with a paraphrased adage of unknown origin: Some people can be bamboozled all of the time, all people can be bamboozled some of the time, but never will all people be bamboozled all of the time.

We, the people are the only ones who can heal society from the cancer of corruption. We need to understand the temptation of scale and address it. We need to stop seeing ourselves just a victim of a disease that sleeps in all of us. We need to give power to the institutions that we have put in place to control corruption: parliaments, separation of power, the press, the ballot box. And sometimes we need to say as a niece – no, I do not want that job as a favour, I want it because I have proven to be better than other contenders.

It is going to be a struggle, because it will mean sacrifices, but sacrifices that we have chosen, not those imposed on us.

Let us start today.

*Bokani Lisa Motsu is a student at University of Botswana

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Opinions

Accounting Officers are out of touch with reality

19th October 2020

Parliament, the second arm of State through its parliamentary committees are one of Botswana’s most powerful mechanisms to ensure that government is held accountable at all times. The Accounting Officers are mostly Permanent Secretaries across government Ministries and Chief Executive Officers, Director Generals, Managing Directors of parastatals, state owned enterprises and Civil Society.

So parliament plays its oversight authority via the legislators sitting on a parliamentary committee and Accounting Officers sitting in the hot chair.  When left with no proper checks and balances, the Executive is prone to abuse the arrangement and so systematic oversight of the executive is usually carried out by parliamentary committees.  They track the work of various government departments and ministries, and conduct scrutiny into important aspects of their policy, direction and administration.

It is not rocket science that effective oversight requires that committees be totally independent and able to set their own agendas and have the power to summon ministers and top civil servants to appear and answer questions. Naturally, Accounting Officers are the highest ranking officials in the government hierarchy apart from cabinet Ministers and as such wield much power and influence in the performance of government.  To illustrate further, government performance is largely owed to the strategic and policy direction of top technocrats in various Ministries.

It is disheartening to point out that the recent parliament committees — as has been the case all over the years — has laid bare the incompetency, inadequacy and ineptitude of people bestowed with great responsibilities in public offices. To say that they are ineffective and inefficient sounds as an understatement. Some appear useless and hopeless when it comes to running the government despite the huge responsibility they possess.

If we were uncertain about the degree at which the Accounting Officers are incompetent, the ongoing parliament committees provide a glaring answer.  It is not an exaggeration to say that ordinary people on the streets have been held ransom by these technocrats who enjoy their air conditioned offices and relish being chauffeured around in luxurious BX SUV’s while the rest of the citizenry continue to suffer. Because of such high life the Accounting Officers seem to have, with time, they have gotten out of touch with the people they are supposed to serve.

An example; when appearing before the recent Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Office of the President Permanent Secretary, Thuso Ramodimoosi, looked reluctant to admit misuse of public funds. Although it is clear funds were misused, he looked unbothered when committee members grilled him over the P80 million Orapa House building that has since morphed into a white elephant for close to 10 successive years. To him, it seems it did not matter much and PAC members were worried for nothing.

On a separate day, another Accounting officer, Director of Public Service Management (DPSM), Naledi Mosalakatane, was not shy to reveal to PAC upon cross-examination that there exist more than 6 000 vacancies in government. Whatever reasons she gave as an excuse, they were not convincing and the committee looked sceptical too. She was faltering and seemed not to have a sense of urgency over the matter no matter how critical it is to the populace.

Botswana’s unemployment rate hoovers around 18 percent in a country where majority of the population is the youth, and the most affected by unemployment. It is still unclear why DPSM could underplay such a critical matter that may threaten the peace and stability of the country.
Accounting Officers clearly appear out of touch with the reality out there – if the PAC examinations are anything to go by.

Ideally the DPSM Director could be dropping the vacancy post digits while sourcing funds and setting timelines for the spaces to be filled as a matter of urgency so that the citizens get employed to feed their families and get out of unemployment and poverty ravaging the country.
The country should thank parliamentary committees such as PAC to expose these abnormalities and the behaviour of our leaders when in public office. How can a full Accounting Officer downplay the magnitude of the landless problem in Botswana and fail to come with direct solutions tailor made to provide Batswana with the land they desperately need?

Land is a life and death matter for some citizens, as we would know.

When Bonolo Khumotaka, the Accounting Officer in the Ministry of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services, whom as a top official probably with a lucrative pay too appears to be lacking sense of urgency as she is failing on her key mandate of working around the clock to award the citizens with land especially those who need it most like the marginalised.  If government purports they need P94 billion to service land to address the land crisis what is plan B for government? Are we going to accept it the way it is?

Government should wake up from its slumber and intervene to avoid the 30 years unnecessary waiting period in State land and 13 years in Tribal land.  Accounting Officers are custodians of government policy, they should ensure it is effective and serve its purpose. What we have been doing over the years, has proved that it is not effective, and clearly there is a need for change of direction.

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Is it possible to make people part of your business resilience planning after the State of Public Emergency?

12th October 2020

THABO MAJOLA

His Excellency Dr Mokgweetsi EK Masisi, the President of the Republic of Botswana found it appropriate to invoke Section 17 (1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Botswana, using the powers vested in him to declare a State of Public Emergency starting from the 2nd April 2020 at midnight.

The constitutional provision under Section 17 (2b) only provided that such a declaration could be up to a maximum of 21 days. His Excellency further invoked Section 93 (1) to convene an extra- ordinary meeting of Parliament to have the opportunity to consult members of parliament on measures that have been put in place to address the spread and transmission of the virus. At this meeting Members of Parliament passed a resolution on the legal instruments and regulations governing the period of the state of emergency, and extended its duration by six (6) months.

The passing of the State of Emergency is considered as a very crucial step in fighting the near apocalyptic potential of the Novel COVID-19 virus. One of the interesting initiatives that was developed and extended to the business community was a 3-month wage subsidy that came with a condition that no businesses would retrench for the duration of the State of Public Emergency. This has potentially saved many people’s jobs as most companies would have been extremely quick to reduce expenses by downsizing. Self-preservation as some would call it.

Most organisations would have tried to reduce costs by letting go of people, retreated and tried their best to live long enough to fight another day. In my view there is silver lining that we need to look at and consider. The fact that organisations are not allowed to retrench has forced certain companies to look at the people with a long-term view.

Most leaders have probably had to wonder how they are going to ensure that their people are resilient. Do they have team members who innovate and add value to the organisation during these testing times? Do they even have resilient people or are they just waiting for the inevitable end? Can they really train people and make them resilient? How can your team members be part of your recovery plan? What can they do to avoid losing the capabilities they need to operate meaningfully for the duration of the State of Public Emergency and beyond?

The above questions have forced companies to reimagine the future of work. The truth is that no organisation can operate to its full potential without resilient people. In the normal business cycle, new teams come on board; new business streams open, operations or production sites launch or close; new markets develop, and technology is introduced. All of this provides fresh opportunities – and risks.

The best analogy I have seen of people-focused resilience planning reframes employees as your organisation’s immune system, ready and prepared to anticipate risks and ensure they can tackle challenges, fend off illness and bounce back more quickly.  So, how do you supercharge your organizational immune system to become resilient?

COVID-19 has helped many organisations realize they were not as prepared as they believed themselves to be. Now is the time to take stock and reset for the future. All the strategies and plans prior to COVID-19 arriving in Botswana need to be thrown out of the window and you need to develop a new plan today. There is no room for tweaking or reframing. Botswana has been disrupted and we need to accept and embrace the change. What we initially anticipated as a disease that would take a short term is turning out to be something we are going to have to live with for a much longer time. It is going to be a marathon and therefore businesses need to have a plan to complete this marathon.

Start planning. Planning for change can help reduce employee stress, anxiety, and overall fear, boosting the confidence of staff and stakeholders. Think about conducting and then regularly refreshing a strategic business impact analysis, look at your employee engagement scores, dig into your customer metrics and explore the way people work alongside your behaviours and culture. This research will help to identify what you really want to protect, the risks that you need to plan for and what you need to survive during disruption. Don’t forget to ask your team members for their input. In many cases they are closest to critical business areas and already have ideas to make processes and systems more robust.

Revisit your organisational purpose. Purpose, values and principles are powerful tools. By putting your organisation’s purpose and values front and center, you provide clear decision-making guidelines for yourself and your organisation. There are very tough and interesting decisions to make which have to be made fast; so having guiding principles on which the business believes in will help and assist all decision makers with sanity checking the choices that are in front of them. One noticeable characteristic of companies that adapt well during change is that they have a strong sense of identity. Leaders and employees have a shared sense of purpose and a common performance culture; they know what the company stands for beyond shareholder value and how to get things done right.

Revisit your purpose and values. Understand if they have been internalised and are proving useful. If so, find ways to increase their use. If not, adapt them as necessities, to help inspire and guide people while immunizing yourself against future disruption. Design your employee experience. The most resilient, adaptive and high performing companies are made up of people who know each other, like each other, and support each other.

Adaptability requires us to teach other, speak up and discuss problems, and have a collective sense of belonging. Listening to your team members is a powerful and disruptive thing to do. It has the potential to transform the way you manage your organisation. Enlisting employees to help shape employee experience, motivates better performance, increases employee retention and helps you spot issues and risks sooner. More importantly, it gives employees a voice so you can get active and constructive suggestions to make your business more robust by adopting an inclusive approach.

Leaders need to show they care. If you want to build resilience, you must build on a basis of trust. And this means leaders should listen, care, and respond. It’s time to build the entire business model around trust and empathy. Many of the employees will be working under extreme pressure due to the looming question around what will happen when companies have to retrench. As a leader of a company transparency and open communication are the most critical aspects that need to be illustrated.

Take your team member into confidence because if you do have to go through the dreaded excise of retrenchment you have to remember that those people the company retains will judge you based on the process you follow. If you illustrate that the business or organization has no regard for loyalty and commitment, they will never commit to the long-term plans of the organisation which will leave you worse off in the end. Its an absolutely delicate balance but it must all be done in good faith. Hopefully, your organization will avoid this!

This is the best time to revisit your identify and train your people to encourage qualities that build strong, empathetic leadership; self-awareness and control, communication, kindness and psychological safety.  Resilience is the glue that binds functional silos and integrates partners, improves communications, helps you prepare, listen and understand. Most importantly, people-focused resilience helps individuals and teams to think collectively and with empathy – helping you respond and recover faster.

Article written by Thabo Majola, a brand communications expert with a wealth of experience in the field and is Managing Director of Incepta Communications.

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