Thursday, September 24, 2020

Ministers should never be allowed to control Public Officers

A fortnight past, I wrote an article, titled ‘The new administration should respect civil servants’ (Sunday Standard, July 20-26 2008). The core of my thesis was that in their desire to get things done, Cabinet Minister should not adopt a bully style of management. I reasoned that such management style often does nothing to advance service delivery. I further reasoned that when workers feel insecure in their jobs, they do not necessarily put more efforts in their work. In the contrary they either timidly await the chop or device retaliatory schemes which could include falsification of information and overt sabotage.

My article coincided with the publication of former MP and Cabinet Minister, Mr. David Magang’s autobiography in which he asserts that Ministers are figureheads who scarcely wield the authority that is due to them. In a related old discussion paper written in September of 1985 and run in the Sunday Standard of July 27 -2 August 2008 Mr. Magang argues that Ministers are constitutionally empowered to head ministries, not only to ensure that government policies are implemented faithfully and efficiently but most importantly to exercise control and superintendence over public officers. This to me is a very topical issue that should be debated openly. Mr. Magang’s views seem diametrically opposed to mine in as far as he does not subscribe to the philosophy of the distinction between the strictly political and administrative sides of government. He prefers an arrangement where the Minister is entirely everything; a technical expert and an expert in political expedition. Whereas I contended that Ministers should keep clear of civil servants, Magang asserts that Ministers should control public officers.

It is not my intention to discuss the constitutionality or otherwise of Mr. Magang’s assertion. That I leave to those who are grounded in the legal profession and students of law. I prefer to deal with simple issues pertaining to the relationship between Cabinet Ministers and public servants based on my crush with these sets of people, some haphazard practical orientation and incidental encounters. I endeavor to present my essay as an installment of my fervent preference rather than as a prescriptive discourse about the supreme model.

Students of politics and administration would argue that the distinction between politics and administration while very simplistic is nonetheless essential to ensure that public administration is insulated from raucous politics so that civil servants remain neutral. In simple terms, civil servants are expected to implement the decisions of the government (the ruling party), but government can not be expected to make sound decisions with obtaining relevant critical information from public officers. In other words, public officers are expected to moderate policy proposals emanating from politicians to ensure efficient and effective management of non-political resources. What this implies is that using the Chinese communist maxim ‘the Red and the Expert’ (Nnoli, 1986) politicians should confine themselves to politics and leave technical experts to do their work freely and diligently.

If they want to get involved in public administration they should necessarily leave politics and join the civil service. In the same way, civil servants should confine themselves to areas of their technical expertise and leave politics to politicians. If they wish to play politics they must first resign their jobs in the civil service. This is a concrete differentiation of roles that is also intended to professionalize the public service. If Ministers were to be allowed a role in the administrative functions of the civil service, it may imply that public officers should also have an active role in politics – a frightening scenario at best.

Politicians are experts in the manipulation of political resources and activities and when not put on a leash by technical experts, they may be enticed into responding to political needs through unsustainable short-term measures if only such could ensure their political survival, to fend off challenges from political opponents and reward political friends. In other words, in their bid to remain in power, Cabinet Ministers can be disastrously irresponsible as to squander public resources in the pursuit of their narrow political goals, hence the need for civil servants to monitor them and restrain their political impulses (populist predisposition). This arrangement has tended to give more power to civil servants and has been helped by the low levels of education among many Ministers in the past and their propensity to talk too much yet making little sense.

While civil servants are seemingly more powerful than Cabinet Ministers, it cannot be said with certainty that this power imbalance is responsible for poor implementation of government policies, programmes and projects. Cabinet Ministers who hold this view assume that the arena of policy making is the preserve for politicians. I have shown earlier on that in order to make meaningful decisions, politicians rely on public officers for the requisite information. If it is agreed that in most cases such policies and programmes are good, it implies that public officers have provided quality information to ensure that the executive arrive at informed decisions. It will be absurd that after working so diligently toward the formulation of first-rate policies, the same people collude in the failure of such policies. It should be realized that in participating in the decision making process (policy formulation) public officers cultivate a sense of ownership of these policies among themselves. This is why it is critical that the executive initiates policies which are then somewhat appraised by the civil servants in the form of extensive discussions and consultations. The insinuation that the inherent powers and privileges of public officers are the root causes of poor service delivery lacks systematic basis.

Cabinet Ministers who subscribe to the view that the power of the civil servants is responsible for poor service delivery in the public service are predominantly those who wish to be bossy and want to manipulate public officers in the pursuit of their parochial political interests. Those Ministers who appreciate their roles and responsibilities and the resultant limitations do understand that to a greater extent they need to get assistance from their key advisors who are in actual fact civil servants. They trust that public officers have no immediate interests in politics and therefore will do their work diligently as a consequent of their sense of responsibility to the nation. Such Ministers have always tended to have a cordial relationship with public servants and have cultivated a sense of trust, respect and loyalty which has translated into a dignified and respected relationship devoid of a false sense of superiority complex. Such a relationship rests largely on officers’ sense of personal ethics premised on having a duty to society by virtue of one’s employment.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ministers who are too eager to run the show are at risk of cultivating dissent and resistance to authority among public officers. These are a crop of Ministers who want to be seen to be extremely busy and hardworking yet doing very little. They wish they could be allowed to move from one office to the next wielding sjambok and issuing headless directives; the type who operates on the basis of personalized authority. These are those Ministers who want to know every detail of work involved in their Ministries and are too eager to get their hands on everything, even trivial things like officiating at the opening of a village grocery store. They feel offended at being left out of the list of invited guests to staff Christmas parties and such small things. They are the type always too eager to approve funeral programmes of our departed loved ones and VDC workshops solely to make their presence felt.

They are overwhelmed by petty matters.

Regarding the point that public servants misinform Cabinet Ministers, it must be appreciated that on a number of occasions it happened, it was always at the instigation of the Ministers. On many occasions especially when answering Parliamentary questions, public officers provide correct information but such information is then doctored or altered by Ministers to suit the occasion. It is a truism that correct answers are often altered by none other than Ministers themselves in attempts to sugar-coat them to save the Ministers and government from imminent embarrassment. In the Bank of Baroda case, it is highly likely that the Minister was provided with a correct answer but elected to vary it so that it was a little pleasant, appetizing and acceptable to Parliament. In cases like these, it is unfortunate that the officers accused of feeding the Ministers with incorrect information may not be given the platform to state their case. The notorious Public Service Act prohibits them from setting the record straight.

Whereas it is true that junior officers are often tasked to source the needed information, it is false to infer that such an arrangement is the root cause of misinformation. Once a junior officer has collated the information, such is passed over to the next senior officer until it reaches the Minister. At every stage discussions are initiated with a view to ensuring that the information is validated by all role players. The problem with most Ministers is that, owing to their false sense of importance, they prefer to be briefed only by senior officers who may not be well informed about certain issues. They deny themselves precise information from low-ranking employees.

On occasions that falsification of information has been deliberate, such is often done as a retaliatory measure and is normally directed to bossy and bully Ministers and those who want to know things they should not know like the names of people who did not contribute towards the retirement party of a distant boss. Often the victims of misinformation are Ministers who want to be treated as Saints.

For instance, employees may be expected to stand still as the Minister passes by or give unreasonable space for the Minister to pass. When an employee is half way up the stairs and the Minister suddenly shows up, the employee has to scramble for safety or else she/he could be charged with insubordination. Years ago there was an allegation at the Ministry of Agriculture that employees were directed to reserve one of the elevators in the building for the exclusive use by the Minister. In such cases, civil servants feel abused and may desire to demonstrate their relative power by withholding information or falsifying it.

In short civil servants want to be reassured of their value in the efficient management of the country.


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