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Management, not politics, will save us

Feb 20, 2005 Management, Sunday Nation

Oh, we’re in big trouble again. Accusations are flying, the mob is baying, the suspects are denying. Investors are nervous, donors are suspicious, civil society is riotous. The Executive sleeps, the economy creeps, and the poor Kenyan weeps. Another fine mess we’ve got ourselves into.

What is it with us? Here we are again at yet another political impasse. There is no way forward, we say, until there’s blood on the carpet, until heads roll down the stairs, until a whole new bunch of grand corrupters are put behind bars. We the people are united: another change of personnel is needed at the top. The people we entrusted with the keys to the kingdom ran off with all the gold once again. What’s our answer to this? Another round of musical chairs. Let’s try out a new bunch of faces. Maybe so-and-so will do a better job.

In the meantime, the country is at a standstill while we stay transfixed by the spectacle before us. All the big businessmen are sitting on their hands again, halting all major investments and expansions until some sanity returns. Donors are in huddles, discussing whether to announce another major aid freeze. Banks and speculators are eyeing the exchange rate with nervousness. You and I are shying away from major purchases and commitments. Standstill. 3 per cent growth in the economy this year, did I hear recently?

Let me run the risk of boring you and state it yet again: the answer to this country’s problems does NOT lie in politics and politicians. History must tell us something, surely: the people who step forward to assume leadership in this country are, mostly, congenital liars, swindlers and time-wasters. Politics in Kenya appears to attract only the most unsuitable of candidates. But what happened to our recruitment procedures, our screening processes? Who lets these people into high office? Ah, that would be you and me, dear reader. We still want to hang on to the now-ridiculous belief that leaders will lead us somewhere worth going. How many times do we want to be led into confusion, corruption and abject poverty before we start to notice that there is something wrong with our beliefs?

Societies more mature than ours learned a fundamental fact of life a long time ago. Politicians do not build countries; institutions and managers do. Let politicians come and go, but let strong institutions and a culture of good management remain through all political upheavals. Do you think rich countries do not have the same breed of power-crazed, dysfunctional megalomaniacs in government that we have? Of course they do. The difference is that they are kept firmly in check. They are not given untrammelled powers. They are not allowed to hire and fire important people on a whim. They not permitted to sign large cheques with impunity. They cannot give tax waivers to their buddies. They are subjected to stringent performance review. America survived a string of potentially very damaging leaders, from Nixon and Reagan to Clinton and Bush, precisely because America is not (contrary to myth) run from the White House.

We must take our attention away from faces and personalities and focus it on rules, policies, processes, and systems. We must stop gazing with awe at noisemakers and look to develop a generation of managers and technocrats who work in robust institutions. Management, not politics, will be our saviour – but we have failed to see the true face of the messiah. Our real rescuer is an altogether quieter and more boring entity.

The evidence is before you. In two years of putting our faith in new politicians, what do we have to show for it? Because we can’t manage our way out of a torn paper bag, we are a nation of half-measures. The politicians read the popular mood, and start some headline-grabbing initiative. Telephones unreliable, you say? We must have more providers! Need more roads? We must build them, and trample over anyone who stands in the way! Power costs too high? We’ll just reduce them! Crime a worry? We must shoot the thugs dead! Hawkers an eyesore in the city? We must kick them out! Free education? Starts tomorrow!

Lots and lots of high-profile initiatives; no results. After two lengthy and expensive tendering processes, we still don’t have any new telecommunications service providers. After plenty of hue and cry and a few roadside demolitions, we still don’t have a major new road project to point to. The fabled Mombasa-Busia dual carriageway remains just a good-looking idea in a file. The Nairobi CBD hawkers are thrown here and there without a single jot of planning or anticipation. Matatus now have nice yellow stripes on their sides, but their drivers still behave like suicidal maniacs.

What is the missing piece? Managers and management skills. Ministers proclaim crowd-pleasing measures from up on high, but lack a cadre below them who know what to do next. There are no voices to be heard saying what is workable and what is not. There are no meticulous planners working out the details of an implementation plan. There are no financial gurus suggesting an innovative funding strategy. And there are no kick-butt implementers who just get on with it. So we start things and then stop. We set ourselves up to fail. We do things by halves, and have half the economy we should have by now.

The balance of power needs to shift to managers. A good manager would have told you that there is no point in moving the hawkers into an empty field with no facilities and no customers – they’ll simply come back. A good manager would have told you that the clearing of road reserves must be systematic and transparent, and involve adequate notice periods. A good manager would have told you that a modern highway in a poor country requires private-sector involvement and funding, and would have handed over the project to those who have successfully delivered dozens in different countries. And crucially, a good manager would have the executive power to make you listen.

As things stand, all the power and all the controls are in the hands of the very people who are undoing us. We not only vote leopards into the boma, we ask them to keep an eye on the goats for us. And then, after viewing the carnage, we start looking for different leopards to do the job. How long will it take us to invest our resources and faith in professional herders and rangers?

It is time we took our eyes away from the comedy at the top of the tree, and began to look at the roots – the fundamentals of power and its management. That document called the Constitution of Kenya is where some of the answers lie. The others are to be found in modern work processes, management systems and automation. If this country is to be saved, it will be saved by some rather dull fellows working industriously in the bowels of sturdy institutions. As we all start to shout, let us remember to put their elevation at the forefront.

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