The last few days has seen quite a lot of debate and commentary on the new kid on the block, “Economic Stimulus Programmes” following the announcement by the President of the Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) resolve to inject some stimulus into our seemingly ailing economy. The print and electronic media as well as public debates in public places has had a fair share of exchanges on the ESPs and I do not wish to revisit the reasons expressed for its introduction nor necessarily the question as to whether it should or not be introduced at this moment of the country’s development. What I wish to raise in this piece are mainly two things; firstly the initiation of policies under this programme spearheaded by the party as opposed to what we have to this day been accustomed to in terms of policy initiation and development, instead of the public service. Secondly, I wish to briefly tease out what I see as implications and somewhat assumptions underlying the introduction of the ESPs in the context of our recent past history in so far as project implementation, monitoring and evaluation exploits in the public service, especially around capacity issues.
Firstly, the announcement by the BDP Chairperson and subsequent explanations and clarifications from the party officials, especially the resolve to have the party drive and direct public policy, has very fundamental implications on the public administration practices of this country and in my opinion require more than just these announcements. It requires a thorough explanation of what the move entails in the workings of a public service that has historical spearheaded both initiation and development of public policy beyond just been responsible for implementation. This is a public service that has historically and rightly so in my view, been appointed and driven by the meritocracy and the commitment to avoid partisan based public policies which could not only be serving specific political interests but could also compromise equal access to national resources by side-lining certain interests within the nation. I want to believe that a merit based public service is still a virtue for ensuring equality and fostering distributive, re-distributive and other key policy types that are meant to serve the citizenry with utmost concern for democratic and good governance practices.
A party driven policy would necessitate a new addition to what has been established procedures, processes and engagement patterns on matters of defining, developing and initiating public policies. The new addition is the role of the ruling party in this matrix and the implications of such a relationship because it also hinges on both the locus and focus of power and authority over who makes what decisions and who has the ultimate word on these matters. It requires more formal engagements beyond the known cabinet ministers, members of parliament and appointed officials. There now has to be space for the BDP as an entity to these processes and that obviously is not just what some seem to think as an easy realignment of ways of engagement that will easily fit into the existing equation. I think any party driven policy will require a much more thorough party consultative processes that should and will take place outside the formal public service processes of engagement, unless of course if these are clearly spelt out now as to how the new relationship will be managed. I am yet to hear the exact intentions of how the ESPs initiatives are going to fit into the known public services processes in terms of institutional mandates and responsibilities that now has very little differentiation of government and party.
On the surface of it there seem to be optimism that it will be a simple flow and matching of complementary systems all driving in one direction and that is where I believe serious challenges will emerge. Amongst the challenges will be reconciling the party interest and possible resolve to head in that direction and the obligation of the experts and professionals in the public service to protect the public interest, unless we assume that at all times on these matters, there will be consensus between the party, government and in particular within government career civil servants on what constitutes the public interest.
Lastly, the introduction of ESPs seem to assume that despite the poor record of project implementation, monitoring & evaluation of public projects over the last few years, we can still adequately handle mega public projects that would be under the ESPs. The last few years have seen us fail to complete projects on time in the form of stadia in Gaborone, Lobatse and Francistown; Airports; a variety of major infrastructural projects such as Morupule Power station and many others. The question then is whether we have adequately corrected the ills that had led to these project failures such that we are confident we can handle additional projects of similar or even more dimensions. Unlike most I have always not been convinced that these project failures resulted from lack of capacity in terms of experts and professionals in the key areas of project implementation, monitoring and evaluation. It probably the case in only a few areas but for the majority of the failures it’s simply systematic. It is the weaknesses of our enforcement policies and regulations coupled with experts in the public service who are powerless to effect and ensure that standards and specifications are met in project implementation.
The issue of capacity also becomes a concern as to the extent of preparedness of the BDP to have the capacity to be hands on policy initiation and development. In the absence of deliberate empowerment of party cadre on this area the party will have to options, one to rely of outsourced experts or consultancies to perform this on their behalf of course at substantial costs to public funds or tap the expertise in the public service and this present potential dilemmas for the professionals. They could either simply follow the masters choices and even disregard their own ethical code practices or use that as an opportunity to asset their professional convictions and influence policies direction even if it means disagreeing with the master. A potentially unhealthy development that could see all sorts of scenarios including dismissals, reprimands and related matters when conflicts dominate the party, government and experts relational processes. Let’s await the unfolding of the ESPs package and see how it defines the news relations in the public sector.