10 Questions with Ryan Coetzee

by The Editor

INTERVIEW: The DA’s Head of Strategy and Special Advisor to the Western Cape Premier, Ryan Coetzee, will soon be working for Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, on his party’s strategy in government. I asked him some questions about strategy, why it is important, how best to understand it and whether politics lends itself to a different approach to strategy, as opposed to the way it is practiced in other fields.

10 Questions with Ryan Coetzee

By: Gareth van Onselen

10 September 2012

1. You are a Special Advisor to the Western Cape Premier and the Democratic Alliance’s Head of Strategy. What is strategy? And how does it differ in government and party politics?

Strategy, at its simplest, is the business of defining an objective and then working out how to achieve it. All strategies are based on an analysis of the internal and external environment in which the person or organisation is trying to achieve the objective. Brand Strategy is the business of working out what a brand should stand for in a consumer’s or citizen’s or voter’s mind, and then working out how to achieve that piece of mindshare. It too requires an analysis of the internal and external environment in which the brand is to be delivered.

2. How is ‘strategy’ different from ‘tactics’?

A strategy is a plan to achieve an ultimate goal. Tactics concern the means of executing particular aspects of that strategic plan. You can only have one strategy, but you can have many tactics. For instance, in WW2, the decision to make an Allied landing in continental Europe was a strategic choice, but the best means of actually landing troops on Omaha Beach (which vehicles to use, how to deploy artillery and air cover, etc) would have been tactical considerations.

3. Is political strategy any different from strategy in the private sector? How?

No and yes. No, because the principles of good strategy formulation apply to any aspect of life (politics, business, sport, war). Yes because the objectives and context differ between politics and business. Businesses are usually aiming to maximize their growth, while parties are usually aiming to maximize their support levels. There are obviously different environments in which these two kinds of organisation operate, and these need to be understood in order to design successful strategy.

4. Presumably being able to read markets and understand public sentiment demands a dispassionate and objective analysis, how do you achieve that when you believe in a particular set of principles and values yourself?

A political brand is a bridge between a political philosophy and what voters want. What you offer voters (your “brand promise”) must be philosophically aligned, because otherwise you will win support under false pretences and then be forced either to break your promise to the voters in government, or govern in a manner that contradicts your purpose in politics. Having said that, if you do not take voter needs into account, then you won’t win very much support, and probably never get into government. So the question to answer is this: what do voters in our target market most want from us that is consistent with our philosophy? Offering that thing will maximize your vote, without compromising your purpose in politics.

5. It was announced this week you will be working in the future for the British Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, as a Special Advisor. What will that entail?

I will be advising him and his team on their strategy in government in a context where the party he leads, the Liberal Democrats, are the smaller partner in a coalition government with the Conservative Party.

6. Would you help any government with its strategy? Why?

Absolutely not. I will only ever work for politicians or parties with which I share a political philosophy and a sense of purpose.

7. Although you are not working for the Liberal Democrats, rather the Deputy Prime Minister, you will need to take his party’s strategy into account, what are the similarities between the Democratic Alliance and the Liberal Democrats?

Both the DA and the LibDems are liberal parties promoting the idea of substantive freedom, by which I mean the kind of freedom that gives every person the right, space and opportunity to fulfill their potential in life. What differs, obviously, is the context in which each party operates. Britain is a developed country with a long history of a British brand of liberalism that goes back in the modern era to John Lock’s Second Treatise on Government. Historically, the great divides in British society are class and geography. South Africa by contrast is a developing country with a history of traditional African social systems, colonialism and Apartheid, caught, in the 20th century, between competing Afrikaner and African nationalisms. In Britain, the traditional ideological competitors of liberalism are conservatism and socialism, while in South Africa, the primary challenge of liberalism is to convince citizens that it offers a better path to the good life than nationalism.

8. Are there any differences? What?

Answered above.

9. Both the Democratic Alliance (2014) and the Liberal Democrats (2015) are working towards a general election. Is a party’s strategy particular to the next election it faces or does it supersede elections?

The ultimate aim of a liberal party is to make the society in which it operates more liberal. Winning elections, then, are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. In other words, a party needs a strategy to achieve a particular vote target in an election (the aim can’t always realistically be to win an outright majority, depending on circumstances), but achieving that vote target is only one milestone along the path to the ultimate goal of the party, which is to win power and use it to create conditions for a more free society.

10. In 2000 you told the Sunday Independent the key for any political party is “not to over-promise”. But at the same time, any party has to promise something, or risk offering no vision at all. What do you think of that insight with regards to South African politics in 2012?

Well, it is absolutely critical to make a promise, or put differently, to make it clear to voters what they will get in return for their votes. But in order actually to win their votes, the offer must be credible, otherwise they will not trust you enough to vote for you and will turn rather to another party they believe will actually deliver something they want. The ANC in 1994 made a promise that, in hindsight, was a classic case of over-promising. Many South Africans do not believe the ANC has delivered on its promise of “A better life for all”. The ANC is, and will continue to pay an electoral price for that failure. The lesson for the DA, however, is not to become smug or complacent, but to make sure it builds an organisation that will stay true to its purpose and deliver on its promises.

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