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Let public servants first declare their competence

Aug 31, 2003 Management, Sunday Nation

This week I would like to invite you all to a comedy show. Welcome, and please take your seats!

Sketch 1: Phase 1 of the National Constitutional Conference is underway. Some interpreters sit in the middle of the auditorium amidst the clamour, translating the proceedings all day long using sign language for the benefit of deaf delegates. After several days, someone asks if the deaf delegates are following the proceedings comfortably and would like to contribute. There is no response. Further investigation reveals that there were in fact no deaf people present! The interpreters were translating into thin air! (Laughter)

Sketch 2: As the deadly SARS virus breaks in the Far East, it emerges that a Kenyan rugby team is in Hong Kong at the time. Health mandarins in Nairobi give assurances to the public that the team members will be screened thoroughly when they return to prevent the virus from entering Kenya. When the team actually returns, it is met by family members at JKIA, but no health officials are in sight. It later emerges that they got the flight details wrong! (Laughter)

Sketch 3: Strong rains cause landslides and sweep away sections of the pipe that brings water to Nairobi. After several weeks and with great difficulty, the pipe is repaired, but the water does not return. It is discovered that logs have blocked the inflow to the main treatment works. It takes a team of workers several days to remove these. 40 years after independence, the capital city of a great country is still largely dependent on a single water source, and is brought to its knees by rain and a few logs! (Laughter)

Sketch 4: Ministry officials have been trying to get a project of national importance underway for months. The only hold-up has been in getting the time and attention of the ministry’s permanent secretary. Finally, an appointment is arranged between the official and the project’s vendors and suppliers of technical expertise. After keeping everyone waiting for a full hour, the permanent secretary wanders in looking confused. It is quickly evident that he has not idea what meeting he is in, and has not, in fact, read the briefing papers meticulously prepared by his staff. He leaves hastily, saying that his officers will handle the meeting. The project stalls again! (Laughter)

Sketch 5: The new government unveils one of the most important documents in the history of the republic: Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation 2003-2007. This long-awaited document chronicles the strategic priorities for the country in the years ahead, and outlines the action plans needed for implementation. It is, in effect, the ‘blueprint’ for getting the country back on its feet. As the document is released to the public, many of those buying the first few copies discover that the pages are printed in the wrong order, and some pages have been left out all together! (Laughter)

Rip-roaring stuff, isn’t it? Were you bent over, helpless with laughter? Actually, if you’re Kenyan, I doubt whether you laughed at all. If these were isolated incidents, you might be forgiven for chortling. If this were an episode of Redykyulass, you could be expected to be holding your sides uncontrollably. Regrettably, these are the everyday events of our existence. We all reside in the theatre of the absurd now.

In fact you could die laughing, quite literally. Many do. The SARS virus went on to kill several hundred people, and brought the vibrant economy of Hong Kong to its knees. Think of the damage to our Kenya if, in addition to terrorism fears and chronic insecurity, we had had a SARS outbreak here. During the water shortage in Nairobi, we came within inches of an outbreak of serious disease. Even hospitals were at a standstill. A few more days, and the consequences in our jam-packed slums would have been unthinkable.

What gives? Why are we perpetually exposed to such farce? The answer, quite simply, is in the quality of the people we have in key places in our public services. Let’s be blunt about it: many parts of the civil service are littered with outright buffoons who have no right to be occupying the posts that they do. Many were appointed with not even a passing glance at their qualifications or experience. Why? Because they came from the right clans and families, or because they were owed political favours, or because a politician wanted his ‘own’ unquestioning people beneath him. They, in turn, appointed people beneath them using the same criteria. Over time, a pyramid of incompetent charlatans was constructed. As it collapses, this pyramid of ineptitude will take us all down with it.

A position in public service is no laughing matter. It is, or should be, a position of great responsibility. Those given this honour can do a great deal of good for their fellow countrymen. It was once a badge worn with great pride. Today, it is a joke. Even those who are competent within government employment can do nothing. They have no standards to work to, no incentive to perform, no targets to meet. Little wonder, then, that they spend all their time running private businesses, and make every attempt to avoid members of the public.

This should be a matter of great urgency for the Narc government. All its fancy recovery plans and grand initiatives will come to nothing if the correct personnel are not in place to implement. As any private-sector CEO worth his salt will tell you, corporate failure does not often derive from a failure to think; it is most often caused by a failure to execute. Good ideas are not in short supply; good people capable of turning those ideas into meaningful action always are.

After decades of hiring and firing people for all the wrong reasons, our public servants would find it difficult to execute an exit from a paper bag. Government thinkers should be extremely worried by this, for it means that all their master recovery plans will stay at cloud level and never hit the ground. Their schemes will remain all talk and no trousers.
A mammoth task lies ahead. All public servants must declare their competence, not just their wealth. A thorough restructuring of the public service is unavoidable. All key jobs must be screened and evaluated. Job descriptions and performance contracts must be defined again. Targets and performance measures must be designed from scratch. Work processes must be mapped out. Accountability must be brought back into the equation. Skills must be redeveloped. Massive training initiatives are likely to be necessary.

I do not wish to damn everyone in public service. There are, of course, a precious few individuals who are still there and who still know what they’re doing. They are the heroes who kept the entire edifice from crumbling. There are even whole institutions that are well run and focused on results. But sadly, there are not many. A new public service must emerge, built around this nucleus.

Every public post occupied by an incompetent costs us several jobs in the future. The time for tolerating ineptitude is gone.

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