Thursday, September 24, 2020

Why allow civil servants to engage in private business?


Over the past couple of years, Botswana invested a lot of resources into the anti-corruption fight in line with global trends. Those who were there at the beginning of the 1990s would remember quite well the scandals, especially elite corruption that set in motion the never ending war on graft. We were not alone in the fight against looting ÔÇô almost everywhere one went across the globe corruption was considered a cancer that needed to be uprooted. A recent study, however paints a terrible picture ÔÇô ‘Despite significant investment in anti-corruption work over the past 15 years, most systemically corrupt countries are considered to be just as corrupt now as they were before the anti-corruption interventions’ Marquette and Peiffer (2015). In this instalment I reflect on developments that have given rise to this cancer and what needs to be done to address it. I do not proclaim any authority on the subject matter, but my contribution might help in general discourse around this issue.

I know many across the African continent consider us a much better place in terms of good governance and democracy. Administratively, we have done very well over the years to keep our government machinery to function smoothly in the way it conducted public affairs. We have been able to bring service closer to Batswana, for example, providing clean water to many parts of this vast arid place, building roads to connect distant areas, and establishing relatively functional medical centres even in remote places. Effectively, the civil service ÔÇô a vehicle through which government policies have been implemented proved reliable and professional in its orientation. That was possible for many years because politicians allowed bureaucrats to be in charge of policy formulation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Permanent secretaries within this arrangement played a significant role in guiding operational and strategic direction of ministries. At the same time politicians acknowledged their limitations and, therefore, allowed their administrators to take the lead on aspects of policy and management ÔÇô obviously, they knew they lacked capacity and capability on matters of administrative governance. It was a golden age for public service management in our country.

But this would take a bad turn in the early 1990s ÔÇô it could have happened even much earlier, but the clear signs of failure in how the civil service conducted business manifested around this period. We witnessed, for instance, the biggest cases of graft ever experienced in our polity ÔÇô land grabbing in peri-urban areas, questionable tenders and many others ÔÇô importantly, committed by high ranking political leaders. But why would a system so configured since transition to self-rule in the 1960s to be corrupt free collapse to a point where graft has institutionalised? This and many others are pertinent questions that should be of interest and, at the same time, worry researchers and the public at large interested in the institutionalisation of good governance and democracy in our country. I am impressed that finally people are taking matters of corruption seriously. Everywhere you meet a group of people chances are that they are talking about how we have allowed our country to go to the dogs, especially over past 10 years.

I was impressed beyond imagination today at work when a colleague shared with us snippets of a case before the courts of law where civil servants at the bottom of the food chain structural-wise are in a hot soup for embezzlement and corruption ÔÇô these are poor blue collar officers who were told by their principals that they should group themselves and form companies so that they can improve their material wellbeing. That was done ÔÇô obviously by their real owners ÔÇô white collar supervisors ÔÇô who in paper provided names of blue collar workers as company directors. What followed is a sad case of organised looting and pillaging. Tenders within the department were given to those companies owned by blue collar workers in the same department. And we mean tenders in millions of pula. Sadly, the poor workers were only asked to authorise monies that never went into their pockets. The real owners of the companies took away the loot. But the good thing is that these blue collar guys are now facing music before the courts of law. Already many people are pessimistic that nothing concrete will be achieved at court. At the end, if any one was to face consequences, it would the poor cleaners and night watch men. The real masters of this looting scheme are likely to go free. But how did we arrive here? How did a strong system collapse overnight and allowed vultures to literally feed on our pensions, savings and related?

We have debated with many of my colleagues the genesis of the collapse of governance, which has given rise to corruption and mismanagement in many government offices. For some it was always going to happen given the way our public management system was configured ÔÇô that it allowed for lack of accountability on the part of those at the top, be it political or administrative superiors. In this view it is pretty much a structural deficiency that allows for graft to institutionalise. The solution from this corner is simple; remove political principals from public management because they still lack requisite skills and knowledge of how bureaucracy functions and proper governance operate. On the other hand, there are those who talk more of a cultural/value deficiency. In here, the argument is that over the years, especially following the ascendency in 2008 by the immediate former head of state far reaching changes in the rules and processes were introduced hurriedly ÔÇô obviously with an intention to facilitate corruption. Suddenly, for example, civil servants were allowed to run private businesses while keeping their jobs at the same time. This to me is an interesting point to pursue because it defied logic. One would want to know why would anybody allows for such a drastic policy shift, especially in an economy where almost everyone is looking for business in government ministries and departments. Its true that even private companies rely on the central government for their own survival. This to me contributed immensely towards institutionalisation of graft and mismanagement that have come to define our civil service today.

There are reasons why the policy to allow civil servants an opportunity to run private companies is bad for us. For starters, the ethos of the private and public organisation are world apart ÔÇô private companies are after profit while public organisations are mostly focused on provision of services without any motivation of profit. I would assume that we would understand what a rational being would do in a context where they have the public purse and at the same time pursue profit. Equally, a rational being would prioritise his business more than his official job because he makes more money there. Teachers, for example, are likely to focus on private tutoring and focus less on their key jobs because opportunities of making more money exist in the former engagement. The consequences of such a bad policy shift are there for us to see.

To fight growing corruption a multi-pronged strategy is required, but in the immediate a change in policy position away from allowing civil servants to engage in private business will help towards crafting a new culture that would priorities service over profit. I know many would see it differently, but, unless something is done, corruption and mismanagement poses a security threat to our society.    

*Dr Molefhe teaches Public Administration at the University of Botswana


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