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Use Kriegler report to go for far-reaching institutional reform

So, the Kriegler Commission’s verdict is in. The upshot: nobody will ever know who won Kenya’s December 2007 presidential election, because the whole thing was organised and managed worse than a tea-party in the chimpanzee house at the zoo.

This verdict is not to everyone’s taste. Some people were waiting avidly to be told who actually won the poll, who rigged what, who’s to blame. Many are mad with Justice Kriegler and his commissioners for narrowing the remit of their inquiry, and not taking a view on those issues. Some suspect the commission made up its mind too early, and wasn’t ready to grasp the real nettle – the possibility of serious electoral fraud.

But let us not allow any of that to distract us from the one fundamental finding that the commission has placed before us: that we must learn to organise, populate and manage our key institutions far, far better than we have done to date.

The commision’s report, released this week, damns the Electoral Commission of Kenya so thoroughly that I am astonished that its members are still able to face the world every morning. What many of us suspected turns out to be true: that the ECK was a top-heavy body filled with pompous wind-bags at the crown and unskilled and inept operatives at the bottom.

The ECK pretty much got every single thing wrong in its management of the last poll. It spent the money on all the wrong places: on allowances, cars and trips for the eminent commissioners, rather than on appropriate recruitment, training, and equipping of those who would actually do the work. Rather than invest in foolproof electronic transmission and tallying systems, it invested in foolhardy perks.

When things began to unravel under the glare of the world’s media, the ECK was clueless on how to deal with the situation. Crisis management is clearly a term that has never entered the vocabulary of the eminent personages, for they proceeded to do all the wrong things: crack stale jokes at a time of national crisis; make loose and ill-chosen remarks about who might be ‘cooking’ what; issue conflicting statements at a time when utter clarity was needed; and finally descend into inappropriately sullen silence.

Some of our public institutions really need some very elementary lessons in management. And they could do worse than visit some of our leading private-sector corporations, rather than sunning themselves on the beach in seminars. A visit to Kenya Airways, for example, would reveal just how seriously the airline takes crisis management: it has a dedicated incident room that has all the necessary equipment installed in advance; it has invested in extensive crisis training long before any crisis happens; and has detailed, documented procedures in place, to be activated the minute a major incident happens.

ECK should have learned from East African Breweries, which manages a nationwide distribution and retail network, and knows all about getting information to and from far-flung places. The commissioners should have hauled themselves to Safaricom to learn about keeping all the elements in a complex ecosystem incentivised and productive.

In fact, the Kriegler report presents an opportunity to take institutional reform far beyond the ECK. For too long, we have done it all hopelessly wrong when it comes to public bodies and parastatals. The recruitment is flawed, because we look for politically correct candidates rather than managerially correct ones. Supervision is wrong, because we fill boards with a multitude of allowance-hungry apparatchiks reflecting all tribes and regions, rather than getting people who know what they’re doing.

Investment is wrong, because we put too much money in cars, trips and per diems rather than in productive equipment and meaningful salaries for people lower down the hierarchy. People management is wrong, because we cultivate a climate of fear and intimidation rather than vision and aspiration. And the processes are wrong, because we encourage people to act as obstructors and deniers of service rather than enablers.

With this kind of management structure in place, things will inevitably go wrong. When they do, however, we lack leaders with the moral fibre to take responsibility. When a managerial fiasco occurs in Kenya, those in charge will find a dozen parties to blame: “This is nothing but politics”; “These people have been sent to finish me”; “I know who is behind this.”

It beggars belief that not one ECK commissioner saw it fit to stand down after the awful mess they handed the country in December 2007.

It is possible to run things properly. It is possible to be efficient in our use of resources. It is possible to organise things to deliver the organisation’s mission. It is possible to plan, to anticipate, to forecast. It is possible to motivate and to inspire. It is possible to control and to monitor.

None of that is magic. It is basic, essential management knowledge. It is freely available. Examples of good practice abound, all around. Let us finally learn to manage.

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