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Presidential Employment Stimulus: Building a Society that Works

Since October 2020, as part of supporting economic recovery from the pandemic, South Africa's Presidential Employment Stimulus has created over a million jobs and livelihood opportunities, mainly for youth and women, across all skills levels and with high levels of spatial equity. It has 're-imagined' public employment (or public works) as an instrument for social innovation at scale, in relation to the forms of work and public value created, unlocking initiative in and beyond the state.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

During the pandemic, unemployment in South Africa rose to 35% overall and 55% for youth. High unemployment is our main cause of poverty and income inequality. While sustainable solutions require inclusive economic development, this will take time. What can we do to address these challenges until then? The goal of the PES is to 'build a society that works' by creating publicly-funded employment at scale, on terms that create meaningful work experience for participants, real social value for communities and a stimulus to local economies from local spending - and to use this to turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. Because despite unemployment, there is no shortage of work to be done to address our social challenges and even if the labour of unemployed people currently has limited market value - it still has - and can create - social value. What we need are instruments to unlock that value. The PES is such an instrument.

Here are some highlights:

  • The Department of Basic Education placed 596,109 young people as school assistants in over 22,000 schools (in 2 cohorts), reaching every corner of the country. Schools as a distributed system enabled scale - but no school was overwhelmed. Over 95% of the budget went to wages. Participants assisted teachers, did admin and IT, maintained facilities and ran after-school sports, arts and other activities. For 73% it was their first job. Over 94% of teachers and principals surveyed said it strengthened the learning environment in schools and want it to continue. Partnerships enabled the rollout of multiple forms of relevant, data-free digital training at significant scale.
  • The Social Employment Fund has been set up to support 'social employment' as part of the social economy, supported by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition. The Social Employment Fund supports organisations active at community-level to employ people to undertake 'work that serves the common good'. Over 45,000 people currently work 16 hours a week, on food security, Early Childhood Development, combating gender-based violence, place-making, catchment management, community arts and more. A further 45,000 are part of Youth Service, on a similar model. Part-time work provides support 'scaffolding' while enabling complementary livelihood activities.
  • This model crowds in significant capacity from non-state actors, enhancing the scale of public employment while building local organisation and agency to solve local challenges - an instrument to (re)build the commons. This fund was significantly oversubscribed, illustrating its potential for scale and systemic impact.
  • It is SA's biggest-ever stimulus to the creative sector provided work for over 32,000 people. They were invited to create work for themselves - by producing new creative work. Movies, screen-plays, theatre, jazz, books in indigenous languages, animations, drone-photography and more. Rather than a traditional public works model, this entrusted 'creatives' with creating employment for themselves (and others) on terms that also created social value. It recognised that in this badly-hit sector, work is not typically in traditional employment relationships - so support to work can't be either.
  • Similar adaptations to traditional public employment models were applied to subsistence farmers - over 100,000 received production input vouchers to help them back to work after lockdown disruptions. The USSD platform they used create a geo-spatial map of such farmers for the first time.
  • So much more... there are over 20 programmes!

What made this possible?

  • The Presidency provided strategic input, oversight and an 'authorising environment' for innovation undertaken by departments, who owned and implemented the programmes.
  • A new envelope of funds approved programmes against criteria: scale, additionality, partnerships, quality of social outcomes, efficiency. The bar was set high.
  • Participating in the PES meant a lot more work for participating departments. Hence it became a 'coalition of the willing' ready to go the extra mile to make a difference.

Who benefited?

  • Participants: 83% youth, 62 % women, including in deeply marginalised areas
  • Their households - in all the ways increased income security can do.
  • Communities: from the social value created and from increased support to locally-generated solutions for local problems.
  • Local economies: wages earned in Umgungundlovu are mainly spent there.
  • The national economy: work experience builds productivity and skills - for self-employment too. We need systemic shifts at this level.
  • Society: the PES created a pipeline of hope and opportunity in a time of need. The jazz and the mural art helped too, of course.

Current budgets for the PES are secure to March 2024. Scenarios to double in scale while also breaking new ground are in play: backed by a commitment to building a society that works.

Innovation Description

What Makes Your Project Innovative?

The Presidential Employment Stimulus 'reimagines' public employment on terms that enable the following:

  • The social value of labour is unlocked - even in a context in which it has no (or limited) market value
  • The forms of work undertaken significantly expand traditional menus of 'public works', to focus on diverse forms of social value creation and work for the common good.
  • Public employment is used as an instrument of community-driven development, unlocking local agency, building the commons and marshalling capacities, creativity and partnerships in the wider society to enable scale and impact.
  • A portfolio approach allows for highly diverse development purposes - and innovation in achieving them - within a set of common criteria.
  • Support to 'work' goes beyond traditional employment relationships, recognising that the changing nature of work requires changing forms of support in a context of crisis.
  • The PES enables this from the centre of government.

What is the current status of your innovation?

The Presidential Employment Stimulus has been in implementation since October 2020 and has already been through three phases of programme design and approval, with shifts in the portfolio in each phase to optimise outcomes. Budgets are secure to March 2024. Discussion with our National Treasury on the scope to extend and further scale the initiative are in process. The PES was envisaged as a crisis intervention; it has become an 'innovation sandbox' at the centre of government. Part of its challenge is to institutionalise the lessons and mainstream its most successful programmes.

Innovation Development

Collaborations & Partnerships

  • 15 participating government departments had to step up to design and implement programmes additional to 'business as usual'.
  • In the school assistants programme, extensive stakeholder engagement; plus non-state actors designed and delivered training programmes at scale for free
  • Social Employment and Youth Service, civil society organisations helped to conceptualise it and are the implementing partners
  • Donors supported technical capacity for the PES function within the state.

Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries

The direct beneficiaries are participants, whose economic participation is enabled. Further, the whole of society benefits from the reductions in poverty, the social value created, the enhanced productivity from work experience and the trickle-up effects within the economy. Lastly, the PES is also contributing to building a capable state, with the need to deliver in a context of crisis having spurred process and technical innovation.

Innovation Reflections

Results, Outcomes & Impacts

At present, over 1 million people have participated, with 15 national government departments reporting. 83% of participants are youth and 62% women - all subject to audit and verification. While scale matters for systemic effects, so do qualitative dimensions. Methodologies vary per programme. The schools programme uses survey tools extensively; a study on qualitative impacts on learners is in process. The Social Employment Fund has a digital reporting tool that quantifies work output indicators, supporting measurement of 'social value', with an impact evaluation commissioned. Critical results to measure include:

  • Impacts on participants, including psycho-social impacts of participation, formal and tacit skills development, future trajectories.
  • Impacts on livelihoods, entrepreneurship
  • Social value creation
  • Institutional innovations - PES, departments, civil society.
  • Stimulus effects in local economies and beyond.

Challenges and Failures

Many challenges were encountered:

  • Initially, the PES budget allowed an implementation window of just 5 months in-year. This later changed, but it created 'hostile timeframes' initially that did not allow for optimal outcomes.
  • Not all programmes were successfully implemented. Support to Early Childhood Development practitioners faced difficulties where providers were informal, because they could not meet audit compliance requirements.
  • The Production Input Voucher scheme had to be suspended for a period because private-sector suppliers were taking a cut of the voucher value.
  • Procurement challenges slowed certain programmes down. Some were never implemented.

Some departments were proactive and solved the challenges; others less so. Often, the role of the Presidency was to help trouble-shoot, particularly in relation to transversal challenges; or to hold departments accountable for outcomes. A framework of monthly reporting to the PES created early warning systems.

Conditions for Success

Conditions for success include:

  • Strong political leadership and support from the President; championing of the PES by relevant Ministers; support - and allocation of human resources - from Directors General in key implementing departments.
  • A mechanism to drive a strategic vision and provide oversight and co-ordination that had authority at the centre of government
  • The allocation of a dedicated budget envelope that enabled scale, coupled with the role of National Treasury in budget adjudication against strict, agreed criteria
  • Criteria informed by a clear vision of the potential to use employment to address social challenges and create social value - and a high bar for approval.
  • Deep understanding of the institutional context of implementation and what can - and cannot - be delivered under given circumstances.
  • A context that meant public officials had to put their hands up for more work - creating a coalition of the willing, committed to making a difference.


The PES has enabled a portfolio approach to the use of public employment for social innovation. The PES mechanism can certainly be reproduced, at national levels as well as, for example, in a city - in both developed and developing contexts. It can target stubborn pockets of unemployment in depressed areas - or be part of a just transition strategy. Criteria can vary depending on context and purpose.

Many of the individual PES programmes can also be replicated. For example, every society has schools, that can provide a high-quality work experience for school assistants, often with a 1:1 mentorship relationship with teachers. It can be used to address particular categories of exclusion within a labour market.

Social Employment can also be replicated anywhere that has unemployment, social challenges and an active civil society willing to manage 'work for the common good'. It's a powerful tool for inclusion - for example, of refugees.

Lessons Learned

  • Unemployment has dire social consequences. Employment and economic inclusion matter too much to society to leave to markets alone.
  • Designing for scale is about more than just replication of a project-scale pilot. Scale is enabled by inter alia: use of distributed systems; use of demand-responsive funding mechanisms that are purpose-driven rather than prescribing outputs; whole of society approaches that crowd in capacity.
  • Programme management really matters, but tends to be treated as a form of 'leakage'. This can sabotage the quality of outcomes.
  • Compliance and regulatory frameworks inhibit the scope for a direct contracting interface between the state and informal grassroots community-level actors. Intermediation is required. It has its risks. They have to be managed in order to resource local agency and initiative.
  • 'Make-work' programmes just model unproductive work habits. The quality of the work experience and the outputs from work matter for all outcomes.

Anything Else?

Innovation is not a 'once off' - the innovations in the PES build on the work and experience of a history of public employment in South Africa, that could be brought to bear on the immediate challenge confronting the PES, as part of a collective South African contribution to innovation in the public employment space.

Year: 2020
Level of Government: National/Federal government


  • Identifying or Discovering Problems or Opportunities - learning where and how an innovative response is needed
  • Generating Ideas or Designing Solutions - finding and filtering ideas to respond to the problem or opportunity
  • Developing Proposals - turning ideas into business cases that can be assessed and acted on
  • Implementation - making the innovation happen
  • Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
  • Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways

Innovation provided by:


Date Published:

3 January 2023

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