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Use the City Hall fire to start again

What was the defining moment of the recent City Hall fire? Was it when shadowy arsonists (allegedly) sneaked in to do their dirty work? Was it when we found that the much-derided Nairobi City Council was utterly unable to put out a fire in its own headquarters? No. For me the defining moment was altogether different.

It was when our city bigwigs – the minister for local government, the mayor and his deputy, and other panjandrums – first came upon the scene during the early hours. It was in the look on their faces. For a brief, fleeting moment, you could actually see the shocked realisation in their expressions – the understanding that this is what years of mismanagement ultimately does to an institution. In the light of those dancing flames, they could actually see what they and people like them have done to this city and this country. The truth about the consequences of negligence was upon them.

It did not last long, of course. Later in the day, the familiar swagger was back in their gait. The glint of evasion was back in their eyes. We were told of dastardly arson plots and evil designs by unnamed politicians. We were told, as we are told after every disaster that occurs in this land, that no stone would be left unturned by the government to find out the truth of the fire. The city fathers were back to business as usual. And weeks later, we can see that all stones will indeed be left undisturbed. Justice? Do wake up and stop that dangerous dreaming.

Yet that is not the point of the City Hall fire. A historic building is reduced to a shell, and irreplaceable documents of immeasurable value are lost for good. Why? Because of sheer, chronic mismanagement over two decades or more. Arsonists may have lit the final match; but the kerosene was being poured over City Hall for years by the very people tasked to manage it. This fire belongs squarely to the motley crew of mayors, councillors, MPs and ministers who have degraded this once beautiful city since the 1970s.

I have repeatedly used this column to drive home the mantra of good management. Without the right management skills and structures, everything we attempt to do in this country will turn to ashes, just like City Hall did. It is the single overriding critical success factor, and it is the one we pay least attention to. We don’t need plans, we don’t need ideas. We have a glut of those. What we do need are good, solid, competent managers to run institutions and make things happen. To see this, let us take a closer look at Nairobi City Council, in theory one of the country’s paramount organisations, from a management perspective.

Let us start with the NCC’s governance and management structure. Who runs the council? Who knows? Councillors will tell you that they are the ‘owners’ of the body – except when things go wrong, in which case they are merely emasculated representatives of the people with no executive power. The mayor will claim to be top dog – except that the town clerk holds all the power. The appointed officials will tell you that they operate at the whim of the councillors. The minister will blow hot and cold and eventually hold up his hands in defeat. The result of this amazingly inept governance structure? No responsibility, no accountability, no progress.

Let’s move to people management. Is there anyone who works at NCC because it is a great place to learn civic management and develop a meaningful career? Is there, in fact, anyone who works at City Hall, full stop? Tens of thousands of employees, but no services provided to the public. NCC employees are treated like donkeys, and produce results as such. They appear on payday, like ants out of the woodwork. There is a sign at the gates: ‘No idlers’, it commands. Should this sign not have been placed inside the institution, not outside, many, many years ago?

Systems and processes, what of them? There has probably been no meaningful modernisation of processes since the 1960s, as far as one can tell. The same old outmoded payment methods, the same obsolete workflow management procedures. Needless queues, the same work done many times over, multiple filing. And this in an era when vast quantities of data can be scanned and transmitted wirelessly to offsite disaster recovery sites at the touch of a button, when bills can be paid over the internet, when a single IT-enabled worker can do the work of fifty. All of that possible, and hardly a computer in sight.

Customer focus, anything happening there? Yes there is. The NCC’s hatred and contempt is indeed focused onto its customers. City residents demanding services are viewed with derision, irritating insects disturbing otherwise peaceful days. Or they are suckers to be touched for bribes, in return for the promise of services – promises never fulfilled in any case.

In short, if NCC were to be professionally reviewed, it would score a resounding zero out of ten. It is a national disgrace, a management horror story to tell future business graduates. There is a constant threat of dissolution hanging over the council these days. The ‘councillors’ may be replaced by ‘commissioners’. About as useful as changing the pall-bearers carrying the coffin, as one commentator put it recently! No cosmetic change will do. The fire may be a godsend in this regard – we should actually complete its work and start again from the ground up.

Two principles must guide this rebuilding. The first is devolution. Like every large, modern city, Nairobi must be divided into boroughs that manage their own affairs. It is plainly unrealistic to endeavour to manage the affairs of a large, complex city from one place. Boroughs will create more manageable business units, and will allow managers to design more tightly controlled processes. They will allow an attention to customer problems that is simply impossible today.

The second principle has to be participation by the private sector. At present, the incentives are all wrong. No one has any incentive to deliver anything. There is far more to be gained from fraud and corruption. If companies with shareholders are brought in, they will appoint managers that can manage, and invest in systems that can deliver, and design processes that streamline workflows. They may make handsome profits, yes, but if they deliver the services we haven’t seen for two decades, will we be complaining? Why should billing, fire services, IT management not be done by private companies? Sensible regulation is all that is needed.

Devolution and outsourcing are unpopular with the powers that be for good reasons: they involve dismantling the structures of patronage. They mean handing over the cash cow to others. They require putting residents at the forefront again. For the city fathers, unthinkable; for residents, unquestionable. Who will win? Who should?

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