It is time to play the government at their own game


For too long now the African National Congress has thrown levels, stages and numbers at us. South Africans are now at expert level of being able to calculate the impact of a “Stage 4 loadshedding” that ends at say 14:00 after which “Stage 3” will be implemented until 18:00. Zone 4 residents will know without so much as a glance at the Trig books that they will have no power between 17:00 and 19:30 and that they should finish preparing dinner before that.

When Covid hit the world, they introduced the idea of levels. The idea was to indicate the seriousness of infectious transmission, which could be curtailed by limiting the purchase of open toe shoes and closing of outdoor venues like beaches in the Western Cape. But not in KZN. This was a higher-grade time when levels and stages intersected and required a deep knowledge of time zones, electricity production, consumption, infection rates and new variants. The number of vaccinations, co-morbidities and antibody levels also needed to be considered.

It is time to turn the tables and to play the government at their own game. It is time to rate their performance according to four simple levels that I suspect even they could follow. Image if we had to rate ministers and departments according to four stages of competence and incompetence.

Level 1 would be “unconscious incompetence”: the lowest stage where the person or minister is not even aware of what they don’t know (half of social media). They think that they are knowledgeable and that there are no gaps in terms of skills. They are the most dangerous of all to have in any job, and particularly in government as not only are they grossly incompetent, but they rarely seek assistance from those who actually are.

Level 2 ministers are “consciously incompetence”: a slight improvement over a Level 1, although arguably the most depressing for the person. They are aware that they are unable to perform the task and deeply cognisant of their lack of knowledge. They seek help which will allow them ultimately to move upward.

Level 3 ministers are “consciously competent:”: They are competent at their job and in the area that they are focused, but must consider each thing they do. Their knowledge is not yet natural and fluid, but they are able to get the job done, albeit slower (like a new driver going through all the checks until it becomes second nature).

The highest and most sought-after area are ministers or government employees who are unconsciously competent: They have the skills in their area of responsibility. And yet they are unaware of their ability as it comes naturally to them. The danger here is that it is hard to empathise with others who are not able to do what they are able to.

In the South African context, as would be the case around the world, Level 4 ministers are rare. That in itself is less a concern for the ANC than the number of their employees who flounder at Level 1. The combination of unconscious incompetence and arrogance is a deadly one. It bodes poorly for the party and for the country if they are invited to continue in 2024. The system of competency is not new and has been around since 1960. It appeared in a textbook called Management of Training Programs by three management professors at New York University.  

In psychology,  the four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence” learning model, relates to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence. People may have several skills, some unrelated to each other, and each skill will typically be at one of the stages at a given time. Many skills require practice to remain at a high level of competence.

The four stages suggest that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognise their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilised without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.

This is why it is such a great way to rate government performance, something we should have done ages ago. And so now, each time we are told that we are heading into stage 4 loadshedding, it is possible to turn that around and call out unconscious incompetence where we find it.

Howard Feldman, Head of Marketing and People at Synthesis Software Technologies