Outgoing ED Rob Moore's farewell thoughts

  • GCRO
  • Date of publication: 31 May 2021

Taking the gap: Reflections on Hybridity

As I take my retirement from the GCRO, my colleagues have insisted that I should capture some reflections on my tenure as Executive Director (and perhaps my association with its governance in earlier years), and the comments below are an effort to sort some central themes from the very full and busy arena within which the GCRO pursues its mission.

It’s important at the outset to acknowledge that initiating the GCRO twelve years ago was a bold innovation, responding to a need in a wholly fresh fashion, risking a new institutional form, and investing significant trust in a pact with social partners. We tend to rattle off too easily the basic facts about the form and mission of the GCRO: it’s a partnership between government and two local universities, and its job is to generate insight into the city-region in ways that are helpful for policy-making. In my many international engagements, I’ve come to learn that these two details alone are enough to generate envy among some of our colleagues in city-regions elsewhere, where the scarcity of reliable data on complex urban environments is a serious stumbling block to effective planning, and productive relationships with universities are hard to come by.

But there are important underlying qualities in this arrangement that I think are equally, if not more, significant. Firstly, both of the participating institutional types (university and government) had to take a risk in committing to an interstitial organizational form that would be hybrid in character. On the one hand, it would be scholarly in its intellectual methods, while its research interest would concentrate solely on urban issues likely to feature on the agenda of government. It would carry the privileges and powers of the university in its autonomy and scholarly enquiry, but be relieved of the burden of teaching and administration normally carried by departments and research units. On the other hand, provincial government committed to providing substantial core funding to the GCRO, but undertook to respect the autonomy and intellectual independence of the research unit. In other words, government was paying skilled researchers to independently generate insight into the conditions of the city-region, including into government performance, and yet respect the GCRO’s right to publish these insights freely. Both institutions, universities and government, had to relinquish their traditional controls within their respective spheres of interest, and instead stake trust in a social partner, in order to advance a common purpose – a better-informed city-region.

I do believe that it is common cause that the experiment with this innovative organisational form has been successful. It is not the purpose of this piece to recap the achievements of the GCRO, but it is important to note a few key features that are constitutive of its effectiveness, and are worth noting if the model is to be replicated elsewhere. The core grant from government, with annual CoL increments, plus the in-kind support from the two university partners, have been essential for the stability and continuity of the organization. This has enabled the GCRO to grow a multi-disciplinary team of innovative and seasoned urban researchers. The in-depth, long-term systematic research programmes of the GCRO have been vital to its ability to provide well-informed advice for the strategic frameworks of policy, as well as quick-turn-around responses to government’s many short-term needs. The GCRO’s relative independence in setting its research agenda has almost always succeeded in anticipating what would eventually become issues for government policy-making. The data-analytic and other intellectual strengths within the GCRO have proved to be very supportive for government, especially at moments of phase-change or crisis (including the current pandemic). The GCRO has developed relationships of trust and reciprocity with colleagues in government and other research organisations, and has often proved to be a helpful broker or intermediary with other parties (sometimes even within government itself). Very significantly, no administration (even when different political parties controlled local government) has ever questioned the credibility of GCRO data or reports. By agreement, almost all GCRO outputs are freely available for download from our website, and innovative methods are found to circulate these to an ever-widening distribution list.

This hybrid structure – a state-funded entity, to serve the state’s purposes, but granted the autonomy and independence of academia – was left alone to constitute its own inner substance: its staffing and research programmes. It immediately asserted its independent stance by instituting the Quality of Life Survey (QoL) as its bedrock programme of research, rather than pursuing the notion of a ‘competitive city-region’, as was suggested in some founding documents. This was a fundamental choice, directing the GCRO’s enquiry towards the intentions of the Constitution, particularly those fundamental human rights that should be progressively realized. The QoL Survey also positioned itself as a monitor of social change for a society in transition, and an observer of the provision of government services. The QoL Survey has acted as a keynote, and an inexhaustible source of data, for understanding the post-apartheid project in South Africa. Without it being a rule, all research projects in the GCRO are quietly inflected with an interest in social justice and how this finds effect in urban spaces. As the staff of the organization grew and diversified, so our gaze into the corners of the city-region widened and sharpened. What we were able to see and understand depended upon who we counted among ourselves as observers.

In summary, then, the establishment of the GCRO is perhaps a case study in adaptive governance undertaken by the partners: it can bring multi-disciplinary teams together to produce independent insight into complex phenomena of interest to policy-makers; it has accumulated enviable data-analytic capability; it can work collaboratively with partners in government, academia and beyond, either directly or as intermediary; and it is itself an innovative organisational form that finds unique strength in hybridity. We must acknowledge its architects for their vision and foresight. It is a model worth celebrating.

Over the years the GCRO has found its voice – indeed has innovated a variety of voices for itself in fresh ways, starting with its iconic Maps of the Month, sustained now for over a decade, and progressing to its interactive web portals, vignettes, exhibitions, story-maps, etc., in addition to its full-bodied research reports, occasional papers and provocations. The audience has grown, both by design and by surprise, and we have sometimes felt overwhelmed by the level of demand for contributions from ourselves. The appetite for our presentations came from senior levels of provincial and local government, lekgotlas and strategic planning meetings. More substantive contributions found their way into strategic frameworks and plans, and end-of-term reports. We were pleased to be invited to present internationally, and provide master-classes to policy-makers from across the African continent.

The demand was part exhilarating, part exhausting. But in-between began to creep the question about the reach of our work, and the extent to which it penetrated below the levels of leadership who sat in on our presentations, and whether it was making a difference to practices on the ground. We knew we were successful when we worked with the willing, as for example in the production of the water security plan for Gauteng. But there are many critical areas of government where the ‘willing’ are less apparent, and the need for evidence-informed decision-making seems critical. We realized that we needed to understand better the receptive context in which we hoped our work was landing.

It goes without saying that the context of government is profoundly sensitive and protective, whether or not it can be counted as a society in transition. A colleague was commissioned to undertake an enquiry among our local government client base, with results that were by turns encouraging, depressing and alarming. Separately, a systematic ethnography of a local government department was quietly and patiently undertaken over an extended period for a doctoral study. Elsewhere, judicious enquiries into the adaptive governance strategies of the Premier’s Office were commenced.

But it was the onset of the pandemic that threw the context of government into sharp relief. The GCRO was drawn dramatically closer as a partner to provincial government in its responses to the crisis, not least as a reflective partner on the issue of governing the response. Through a range of engagements, the GCRO deepened its insight and analysis into some of the dynamics at work in this crucial seat of government, including the deep contradictions between visionary and adaptive leadership on the one hand and a collection of other interests, some arrayed in self-interested schemes or confounding immobility. The GCRO’s insights were called on again and again by a leadership determined to hold on to the lessons of the crisis. Understanding government and governance in our city-region has to be a priority for the future.

What is clear is that the work that we have done so far in theorizing the GCRO as an organisation within the field of ‘science advice’ has just begun, and we must continue to understand the distinctive and changing positionality of the GCRO in the South African and Gauteng policy-research domain, and the particular affordances available to us. I believe the GCRO’s profile and relationship with its client base has evolved in productive ways in recent years, with the pandemic accelerating that trajectory. The arrival of Mr Rashid Seedat as the new Executive Director provides an outstanding opportunity to deepen the reciprocal and influential relationships with government, and to do so with a reflexive insight into the conditions that make for effective evidence-informed decision-making, and without compromising the independence of the research platform.

A final thought: I am not sure that we in the GCRO – or indeed in the GCR more broadly – have a ‘theory of the city-region’. In other words, do we have a high-level understanding of the intentions that should be informing the long-term project of urbanization in the city-region, and that should be informing the myriad of micro-level urban planning decisions that are taken on a daily basis? I don’t believe a coherent vision exists yet for the future of the city-region, nor yet the values that should underpin it. Elsewhere Ivan Turok and Justin Visagie have discussed the idea that urban areas could be understood as ‘engines of growth’, providing enhanced opportunities for people to access within easy reach the amenities that enable upward social mobility – education, employment, social capital, affordable housing, etc. But the converse is equally possible: cities can be sinks of destitution and despair. The issue lies in the intention – inclusion or exclusion? If we are to be an inclusionary society, as our Constitution enjoins us, then we need to anticipate the likely in-migration into our city-region, understand the varying conditions, ambitions and purposes that drive people to move, and plan our city-region accordingly, taking into consideration of course the range of actors that shape the urban form, because of, and in spite of, our planning. Equally, we need to work with the other futures (known and unknown, like climate change, other pandemics, etc.) that are bearing down upon us and what these mean for how we think about ‘the urban’. The pandemic has inspired some of our leaders to begin thinking at a larger scale, beyond those that fetter us now, and understand the associative governance that this will require. I think the GCRO has a growing role to play in providing insight that helps us think about the shape of these possible futures, and how we might get there.

I feel privileged to have been associated with the GCRO, in one way or another, for most of its life, and give my gratitude to all my fellow travelers over these deeply rewarding years. My thanks to the GCRO Board, who individually and collectively have been so encouraging, supportive and appreciative, and who have provided important guidance during tricky moments. I really want to acknowledge our partners in government, especially those individuals with whom I have worked so closely on a number of projects. I know how much good government depends on people like you. But my most sincere gratitude and appreciation goes to all my colleagues within the GCRO, who are a group of extraordinarily talented, innovative, resilient and cheerful professionals – I have learned so much from each one of you. I hope the reflections above provide a glimpse into the multi-faceted policy-scholars that you grow to be, the complex space that you occupy, and the very nuanced performances that you pull off again and again. And again. Thank you.

The GCRO is a very busy and fast-moving space, with multiple projects moving forward simultaneously. There’s a lot happening, and potentially a lot can go wrong, but very little does, because of the management structure. I owe a debt of deep gratitude to Graeme, Melinda, Richard and Ruth, who run an outfit that is completely ship-shape, and which enables our researchers to pursue their work with all the support and back-up that they need. Thank you for the unfailing attention to detail, the relentless quest for quality, for spotting issues before they happen, for seeing someone who needs a helping hand, for being such problem-solvers, and for the unquenchable sense of humour. Heavens, I shall miss you all.

I have worked very closely with Mr Rashid Seedat for many years, both when we were together on the Board of the GCRO in earlier years, and when we collaborated on partnerships between Wits and Provincial Government. During the last five and half years, Rashid and I have been in constant communication, liaising and fine-tuning the GCRO’s relationship with the GPG. It’s from this long association that I know how fortunate the GCRO is to have Rashid take on the role of Executive Director at this juncture, and how well-positioned he is to steer the organization into the next phase of its life. Strength to your purpose, Rash, I shall be following what lies ahead with huge interest.

Dr Rob Moore, May 2021


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