Friday, June 21, 2024

Inadequately trained, ill prepared and incompetent ministers damaging the quality of government!

There is a school of thoughts that entirely dismiss Cabinet Ministers as insubstantial and of such little consequence that their absence would not make any difference whatsoever. In other words, it really matters little whether a ministry has an effective Cabinet Minister or just a figurehead who is in it to grow his/her belly and to have a rosy cheek. 

This school of thought views government ministers as pretty worthless bunch and of only a passing consequence who make no difference to policy issues but who are overrated and revered ostensibly for their ability to pretend to be valuable. 

The other school of thoughts holds that ministers of government are central to government operations hence the quality of ministers is crucial. A central proposition of this school of thought is that government ministers matter, such that the standing of government is a direct outgrowth of the stature of cabinet ministers. This school of thoughts assumes that the quality and performance of individual ministers do have a significant and often lasting impact on policy direction. 

Regardless of what position one takes in respect of these two theoretical orientations, the little fact that government ministers are the political heads of government ministries is testament to their centrality in the overall functioning of the government. Government ministers are essentially charged with the responsibility to drive the agenda of the government such that if they stagger clumsily, the whole system of government is bound to be paralyzed.        

The repeated, monumental blunders committed by the government in the last few years are actually a definitive proof of what happens when cabinet ministers are ill prepared for the job at hand. While other Ministers dither on this and that precisely because they are not equal the task, others act decisively but terribly most of the time. 

It is not that ministers are expected to get everything right all the time but in practice no one expect the government to make mistakes because a single, small mistake can create a huge, costly systemic problem

There have been some depressing mistakes such as when suspects were taken to court without a shred of evidence having been gathered, or as when the Botswana Housing Corporation decided to get rentals for their properties on par with market rates instantaneously by effecting about 400% rental increases or when government employed COVID 19 Scorpions before issuing a directive terminating their employment only for them to instruct local councils not to terminate the employment contracts.

Generally, there have been apologies, reassurances, retractions and repeat apologies with ministers appearing to be reactive and on the back foot most of the time. There is certainly more to these stories than just common mistakes. 

What these blunders have in common is that they are not mistakes in the sense of having been done in good faith but producing unintended results. Rather, these blunders point to a defect in our system wherein ministers are somewhat expected to hit the ground running by immediately upon appointment initiating policy interventions and inspiring civil servants to deliver. Yet, the reality is that most of those who get appointed as ministers have no basic track record in managing things and leading people.  

Under the circumstances, honest and determined ministers would choose to take it easy in order to familiarize themselves with the nature of ministerial responsibility whereas the smart pants who opted to impress the media would fall for it like a braggart preparing a spectacular fall from grace. Oh yes, the nail that sticks out get hammered down countless times.  

This desire to impress in the short term is part of the reasons for so many silly blunders, apologies, retractions and rebuttals as most want to behave as if the announcement of a policy represents a potential breakthrough in search of a rare breed of an honest politician. 

Thus, most ministers lack the wherewithal to make policies that have staying power given their lack of preparation for their complex jobs and the frequent reshufflings that seem to suggest that ministers are in actual fact just political sculptures with no impact on policy development and implementation.

A running theme of this discussion is that there is a link between the effectiveness of government ministers and the overall performance of government. 

From this perspective, the genesis of this discussion is that the quality of ministers is crucial in our political system. It may matter very little that their absence makes no substantial difference in policy direction and that most of them often fare badly than dead bodies that can be used by medical students for their learning. 

It may also matter little that most of our cabinet ministers, now and then, were appointed for other reasons other than to help deliver the collective agenda of the government. The reality though is that for as long as Cabinet Ministers have the responsibility to drive the nation’s policy agenda by broadly defining what need to be done, how and when, they will remain pivotal in government operating system.    

Thus, in accordance with our political system that makes political leaders to belong amongst society’s elites, cabinet ministers wield almost unchecked, unrivalled political power that makes them moguls of the government operating system. 

In this instance, no matter how much we loathe them for their lack of basic managerial skills, for their uninspiring accomplishments and mental attitudes, and for their inability to articulate and mobilize society to rally behind sound and clear government policy initiatives; no matter how much we feel justified in refusing to give them the respect they so much crave, cabinet ministers cannot be wished away like street prophets who have turned into conmen. 

The fact that they recognize the amount of unchecked political power they wield and that a majority of the voters give them the status of township celebrities means that even when they are clueless, they would rather throw their weight around and frustrate any policy initiative that doesn’t bore their seal of approval if only to show who is in control. 

Alternatively, they may just pretend that they fully comprehend the rationale and objective of the proposed policy initiative and are fully committed to presenting and justifying it in parliament only to flounder about when it matters most.

Given the scenario that government ministers are a vital cog in the government machinery but that their lack of preparation for their jobs means that they are thrown in at the deep end, it is only logical to theorize how cabinet ministers could be helped to become effective mainly by preparing them for the complexities of ministerial operations, especially those with limited work experience of some sort.

Most specifically, it is necessary to imagine the greater benefits of availing structured opportunities for the development of wider political skills that would enable cabinet ministers to provide effective leadership. 

Whereas civil servants are often inducted upon assumption of office and then receive training opportunities for their continuing professional development during their tenure as a normal part of an officer’s life in the service of the nation, cabinet ministers are left to swim or sink on their own and the results have been the issuance of fumbled directives that have become a daily occurrence and an embarrassment to the nation. 

The reason why civil servants are inducted, offered regular on-the-job training, and tailored soft skills training is in appreciation that they are not super beings who are expected to instantly perform at the highest level.  

If it is acknowledged that cabinet ministers and civil servants alike have a decisive impact on the overall performance of government; that induction and regular training is necessary for employee performance and that cabinet ministers are required to mobilize support and help deliver on the collective agenda of the government, then it is only logical and prudent that attempts to bolster performance in government through the provision of targeted training should also be directed at cabinet ministers if there is to be a sense of cohesion and unity of purpose within government departments.

The widespread myth that skills for political management of ministries are inherent in those appointed to cabinet positions and/or that they will self-learn to instantly acquire the requisite management skills and experience should be dispelled so that political parties and the government take preparation of political leaders seriously.        

Given our political system that prescribes the selection of cabinet ministers from a small pool of Members of Parliament and a few from the streets, we can be certain that the challenge of unskilled political bosses will haunt us for years to come. Government is in disarray mainly because most ministries have to do with absentee leadership (physically present but otherwise useless) and this is the most common form of incompetent leadership.  

Solutions are limited but training this lot may go a long way in making our ministers a little, yes just a bit effective. 

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