Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Public Institutions & the Individual

Public administration practices around the world are rooted and generated by ever increasing reconciliation of the role of the individual and that of the institution in matters of public policy. The practice by governments and, in particular by the executive arm of government, often preambles the nature and details of which of the two main actors(individual & institutions) is paramount in decision making, but it also defines the lines of relational aspects between the two, including the values, norms and conventions that drives each’ s viewpoint of public policy. This week I wish to briefly discuss the above in the context of current developments in our country, including what these current trends may mean for our public administration practices. Let me begin by spelling out what I mean by current trends and the logic of such in contrast to what could be termed old practices.

One of the visible changes in our public administration today is the prominence of the executive role in public policy matters, which could be traced to the coming in of the current Head of State when he became Vice President of this country. The reader would recall the new approach then, of opening up public offices, in particular that of the VP, to members of the public who may have issues with the manner in which services are delivered to them as individuals and to their communities as a collective. This has continued with the increased & more regular visits to various locations in the country by the president and a large contingent of ministers in kgotla meetings, including poverty eradication projects in designated locations. It is important to note that whereas there have always been presidential and ministerial visits to settlements in the country, the current ones have seen increased numbers of ministers accompanying the president. Lately, we have heard of ministers, permanent secretaries and senior public servants been sent to various schools in the aftermath of the crisis in education results. Recently, we have also heard of ministers’ lines to be open to public queries. It is the meaning of these trends on, what I would call, established public service practices, which I wish to reflect on.

Public administration practices in Botswana have been rooted in the known practices of separation of powers between the three organs of the state; a recognised and implicit expression of the differentiation of political from administrative roles and; a recognition of the vital role of the merit based public service, as the core of public policy making processes in the country. These three key principles jointly provided our public service with a template of the role of individuals and that of institutions. It is on the basis of the three that over the years we have come to belief in the impersonal nature of public policies, because the basic principle is that these policies are rooted in the institutional outlook as opposed to any individual’s personal attributes and motives. In this context, our public administration practices depict an entrenched belief in public organizations as epitomes of collectively sanctioned schemes, rules, norms, routines and conventions. These have over the years become our institutional way of providing stability in public policy making processes, but more importantly it has also been our approach to managing consensus and conflict in changing patterns of our public service mandate. This of course was intended to ensure that even when we do change our practices as modern challenges dictates, we do so with less conflict and positive coherence of our symbolic patterns and systems, synergy in our institutions’ relational systems and general impersonal based policy outlooks.

The new trends tend to suggest a shift in these institutional based policy outlooks, where while we continue to produce the known bibles of our policy definition and direction, in the form of national development plans, annual budgets (at any level), and other blueprints guiding our service delivery patterns, our practices of sometimes pronouncing on the intended policy outcome before crafting the policies itself, creates more room for individual based decision making. I can hear you saying but these will still be part of our policy making processes, and indeed it could be so, but the more visible involvement of the politicians in the executive, coupled with what I see as extending their roles, will necessarily diminish institutional relevance. I am convinced that some, if not a majority of issues addressed in the presidential and ministerial entourages, are issues that the various institutions of public services can address adequately without the involvement of ministers, let alone the presidency itself. These new trends have two main implications; one is that indirectly the executive (the political side) is passing a vote of no confidence on those institutions tasked with delivering services to members of the public and therefore assuming more responsibility of the implementation side of public policy which is by convention the mandate of appointed public servants. Secondly, it can also mean that we are now seeing a total removal of that invisible, but present, line between political decisions and administrative responsibilities of a merit based/grounded public service.

I accept and do appreciate that the old doctrine of the dichotomy between politics and administration does evolve and brings with it changes in the values and norms of public administration practices in any country. However, that we still argue of the existence of the line, blurred as it may appear, it is still there, and there is a reason for its existence. One of the fundamental reasons for that dichotomy is to ensure that values, norms and conventions that guides public policy making should remain the blue prints for such and public service institutions continue to be established authoritative organs guiding behaviour patterns in the public service. The second important reason is that old practices were meant to provide a deterrent to individuals such that there is least probability of individuals not only rising above public institutions but also controlling them outside the norms, values, conventions and moral templates embedded in the traditional role of public institutions, even in the advent of changing practices. We must embrace change but, only if it adds value to our collectively sanctioned patterned behaviour.


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